From Gordon Head, Elliot the Reindeer ready to charm the world

Victoria writer creates big-screen Christmas classic

From the basement living room of a suburban Gordon Head home comes an animated Christmas movie that has all the spirit to join the annals of Hollywood’s most beloved animated holiday classics.

On Sunday, Elliot the Littlest Reindeer opens in about 20 theatres in Canada and about 100 in the U.S., and will be available for streaming by video-on-demand Dec. 4. It’s already on the big screen in European nations Romania, Turkey, Lithuania, Russia (this week), Germany and Austria, and is due to hit theatres next week in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and then in Kenya, Uganda and more.

It has high-end animation, a $16 million budget and serious star power with Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games) playing Elliott, a miniature horse who wants to be one of Santa’s reindeer, and his wise friend Hazel the goat, played by Samantha Bee (Full Frontal). It also stars comedian Jeff Dunham, Moreena Baccarin (seen recently in Deadpool as Vanessa, Deadpool’s girlfriend), Martin Short, John Cleese and other stars.

But the only thing Hollywood about Jennifer Westcott, the creator, writer and director of Elliot the Littlest Reindeer, is her dedication to the craft.

“I’ve been writing since my son Simon was born 13 years ago,” said Westcott. “For the first five of those years I optioned a bunch of scripts that weren’t made into films and finally my sister [Victoria], who owned her own business, said, ‘why don’t we just make one.’ She’s one of those people who just does things, and we crowdfunded it.”

Naturally, one doesn’t just walk into one of Canada’s top animation studios with a script.

First of all, it has to be “really, really good,” Westcott said. Then, you need to get it noticed.

In the Westcotts case, they entered the film script for Elliot into multiple contests, winning the 2009 Praxis Screenwriting Award and the 2010 Angel Film Award for best family screenplay.

“Having the awards really helped,” Westcott said. “My sister attended [mixer events] where producers and screenwriters share their ideas and see what fits.”

From there it’s a cascading effect. Once a producer came on board then came money and connection to a casting director who has relationships with actor agencies.

“And once you get one big-name actor committed, then the others see that name and start to come on,” Westcott said.

And then one day you’re in a Toronto recording studio asking Martin Short to adjust one of his lines.

“I did, for most actors I did, but for Martin, maybe just one or two little things.”

As the writer-director, Westcott did retain control though the producers are also well aware of what sells and what special effects fit the budget.

So far Elliot the Littlest Reindeer has been well-received. The first review Westcott read was also the only negative one she’s seen. It came from England, where the film went straight to DVD.

“The first review was quite mean, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ but after that I read a lot of happy reviews, so it’s OK,’” she said.

Westcott’s biggest fan so far would be her eight-year-old daughter Ellie. The youngster has seen it ‘N-times-a-billion’ times and has seen clips since the group started making the movie in 2015.

Westcott can’t give Ellie credit for any lines but Ellie’s certainly shared her approval for a lot of the designs and scenes, mom said. However, Ellie did take exception to one scene, in particular.

To set the stage, Mrs. Claus makes magic cookies that give the reindeer the power to fly. However, cookie consumption is something to be done in moderation. But D.J., a very likeable young reindeer, sneaks extra cookies in an effort to meet the heavy expectations of his father Donner (played by John Cleese). In this case, Donner is the equivalent to an overbearing hockey parent. Ellie really likes D.J. and took exception to D.J. eating the cookies on purpose, Westcott said.

“She likes him, he’s a great character. So Ellie drew up a story board in which D.J. ‘fell into the cookies by accident,’ and ‘that’s how he gets in trouble,’ and I said, ‘sorry, that’s not going to work Ellie, he’s a cheater.’”

So how does a miniature horse come to wish he could be a reindeer in the first place? It started in Texas.

When Westcott initially started writing, she focused on comedies. It was 2007 and the family was living in Texas as her partner, now a UVic prof, was teaching at the University of Dallas.

“We ended up a miniature horse auction,” Westcott recalled. “I’d never seen a miniature horse in my whole life, and I’d grown up on a farm in the Ottawa Valley. I thought, ‘what are these, they’re so weird and bizarre.’ So the idea was always there, it evolved into what could a mini horse never do. Well, he can’t pull Santa’s sleigh, or fly.’”

Elliot is Westcott’s second feature film. Her first was Locked in a Garage Band (2012), filmed over 10 days in a Mission garage, screened at Raindance and CBGB film festivals and distributed by Double Dutch International.

Elliot the Littlest Reindeer comes is available for preorder at amazon.ca now and will be available to stream on Dec. 4 on Shaw, Bell, Rogers, Videotron, Sasktel, Cogeco, iTunes, Sony, Google Play, Microsoft, Cineplex.

reporter@saanichnews.com

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