Netflix’s latest Christmas romantic comedy, The Knight Before Christmas, adds Santa and mistletoe to the time-honored time- and dimension-traveling tradition of movies like Kate & Leopold, Enchanted, and Thor. The pun of the title refers to Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse), a knight from 1334 England who winds up in 2019 America.
He gets there through a subversion of fairy-tale tropes: when an old woman in a forest asks him to help her get home, he doesn’t rebuff her, à la Beauty and the Beast, then learn she’s a powerful fairy who will force him to learn a lesson in humility. Instead, Sir Cole immediately jumps to her aid. As a reward, she sends him into the future, telling him this will be his opportunity to become “a true knight.” But if he doesn’t figure out what his destiny is before midnight on Christmas Eve, he’ll remain in 2019 forever. Bewildered, he wanders straight into Brooke (Vanessa Hudgens), a recently single schoolteacher who has become cynical about the notion of true love. To paraphrase Avril Lavigne, he was a knight, she was a girl, also it was Christmas, can I make it any more obvious?
When Brooke accidentally hits Cole with her car, she takes him in as an act of contrition, allowing him to stay in her home as he recovers. She assumes he’s a cosplayer, and that the accident gave him a concussion, which is why he’s convinced he’s a medieval knight. However, as time passes and they grow closer, she begins to believe that his story about having been sent into the future might actually be true.
Meanwhile, Cole adjusts to life in the 21st century, setting bonfires in Brooke’s yard, threatening to challenge Brooke’s ex-boyfriend to a duel, and attempting to hunt the local wildlife before being introduced to the grocery store.
The most important element here is Whitehouse, whose hunkiness and bright-eyed, bushy-tailed demeanor make The Knight Before Christmas enjoyable rather than a rehash of every other fish-out-of-water fable. He’s a less beefy, more goofy version of Chris Hemsworth, and director Monika Mitchell and writer Cara J. Russell take full advantage of the fact, even ripping off the Thor diner scene where Thor, delighted by human food, yells for another drink as though he were still in a Viking mead-hall.
Whitehouse doesn’t have much chemistry with Hudgens, but where a lack of sparks might pose a problem for any other romance movie, it’s not much of an impediment here. Apart from a shirtless scene, this is a chaste fantasy — a storyline that involves another potential love interest for Cole is quickly banished — and part of Cole’s appeal is that, hunky as he may be, he’s romantically harmless.
Sir Cole is a good man, though, through and through. He’s not prideful or otherwise mean — his only real flaw is that he isn’t in love with Brooke yet. His trip to the 21st century isn’t the result of any curse, and despite how different 2019 is, he’s mostly calm about finding himself in the future. The fact that he’s had to work hard to become a knight means he’s willing to help out in whatever ways he can, helping Brooke bake for a party, and assisting the police when they need to catch would-be pickpockets, or rescue a young girl who wanders out onto thin ice.
A few other 2019-specific details help give the film a greater degree of specificity, with Cole becoming obsessed with Brooke’s Alexa (in a surprising bit of product placement for Amazon) and, upon learning about TV, falling into binge-watching. The more he watches, the more he becomes familiar with current colloquialisms (like “lit AF”), which he spouts back at Brooke in an exaggerated American accent. It’s cringeworthy, but still cute.
The Knight Before Christmas suffers, however, from trying to check off as many boxes as it can. It’s equal parts modern fairy tale, time-travel movie that’s meant to make people understand and appreciate their own era, and Christmas magic movie, and the creators don’t do anything meaningful to refresh those genre trappings, or play with their conventions.
A detour that involves Brooke’s neighbors is the film’s one real tie to Christmas, as none of the rest of the story is dependent on the holiday. It’s also one of the stranger parts of The Knight Before Christmas, as its resolution for a single father’s struggle to provide for his children is to have him lavish gifts on them, rather than looking to any more long-term solutions for their financial instability. The neighbor who flirts with Cole is barely present, since Cole only has eyes for Brooke. But she’s still subjected to a brief bit of slut-shaming, as Brooke disdainfully tells Cole the woman was voted “biggest flirt” in high school.
These little details, good and bad, are the points that end up standing out about The Knight Before Christmas, as the rest of the film follows a well-worn path. Will Brooke ever believe in love again? Will Cole choose to go or to stay, when given the choice? Is Christmas the most wonderful time of the year? The answers are already evident.
The Knight Before Christmas is streaming on Netflix now.