burning questions

A Serious Conversation About The Knight Before Christmas

Vanessa Hudgens considering the complexities of the Vanessa Hudgens Cinematic Universe. Photo: Brooke Palmer/Netflix

This week, Netflix unleashes the latest movie in its impressively tepid Christmas arsenal: The Knight Before Christmas, starring Vanessa Hudgens as a gentle science teacher living in “Bracebridge, Ohio,” who doesn’t believe in love until she meets a time-traveling 14th-century knight (Josh Whitehouse) who breaks down her castle walls. The Knight Before Christmas is a staggering work of lifeless mediocrity and primary colors, shot through with glimpses of the surreal, and topped off with blatant mimicry of Game of Thrones. As ardent fans of Hudgens’s previous Netflix Christmas work, The Princess Switch, we really needed to talk about it.

Rachel Handler: Hello, Jackson. We have now both watched The Knight Before Christmas. Personally, I am speechless but also overflowing with things to say about it. The first thing I want to ask you is: Do you think this movie takes place in the same cinematic universe as Netflix’s Princess Switch films, also starring Vanessa Hudgens, also Christmas-themed, also dealing with the complexities of living under a monarchy? At one point, a character warmly name-checks Aldovia,* a made-up nation where the Christmas Prince movies take place. This makes me wonder if the events of A Christmas Prince, Princess Switch, and Knight Before Christmas have occurred in the same Netflix Christmas dimension. However, that would mean that there are at least four women in said dimension who look exactly like Vanessa Hudgens. This strains credulity — not to mention, The Princess Switch princess is famous, so Brooke would have seen her on the news and been thrown into a harrowing identity crisis. So while it’s clear that Aldovia exists, it may not be the exact Aldovia that we know and love.

Which would seem to suggest that the story of The Princess Switch exists only in cinematic form in the Knight Before Christmas universe — a fictional tale that takes place in the real-world setting of Aldovia. But something else to consider is that in Knight Before Christmas, Brooke and her suitor spend an entire day “binge-watching” Netflix, including its esteemed Christmas catalogue. The Princess Switch is not mentioned nor hinted at. So in this universe, I’m going to assume that The Princess Switch as a filmic entity does not exist, because it would be quite unsettling for Vanessa to turn on the TV and see herself replicated several times. UNLESS we are dealing with a third universe, wherein The Princess Switch AND the actual Aldovia do exist, but the main character is not played by Vanessa Hudgens. What are your thoughts??

Jackson McHenry: Like you, I’m frankly overwhelmed thinking about the five-dimensional possibilities of the Vanessa Hudgens cinematic universe (Marty, are holiday movies cinema? Please weigh in). If this movie doesn’t exist in the Princess Switch reality, it at least definitely exists in a universe where Princess Switch doesn’t exist, for the “Vanessa Hudgens can’t be watching Princess Switch” reality, which implies at least three universes and almost gets us to a stealth revival of The OA. In the universe of The Knight Before Christmas, I should add, things operate a little differently than our own, in that time travel is capable of bringing a prince from 1334 England to our reality, people are obsessed with baking bread, and everyone talks about binge-watching way too much. There is also so much discussion of Vanessa Hudgens’s character Brooke’s Alexa that it felt like a third character in the story. But anyway, we should probably hash out some of the Knight Before Christmas basics first. What did you think of Brooke and her dashing knight Sir Cole’s romance? I found it hard to not focus on the fact that his name just sounds like “circle.”

Rachel: Sir Cole is basically a poor man’s Robert Pattinson. At the beginning of the movie I truly strained to believe him as a medieval knight and just wanted to call him “Josh.” He looks like somebody who ditches third period to smoke an apple bong in his mom’s Volvo. We have let men take the “laissez-faire hair” thing too far. But anyway. I love Vanessa Hudgens deeply (Gabriella forever), but she has a way of flattening all of her characters into the exact same person. None of them have a single distinguishing characteristic outside of their Richard Scarry jobs (baker, princess, teacher), their desperation to find love, and their coats (which are great). Which is why, again, I wonder if perhaps this movie is actually an Inception-style caper wherein Vanessa is still playing the character from The Princess Switch, pretending to be a science teacher (there is textual support for this; her Princess character loves to pretend to be other people). But that flattening means she has never had chemistry with anyone onscreen, at least since Zac Efron (Troy forever).

I do want to circle (Sir Cole) back to the product placement. The Alexa thing was staggering — I cannot believe she was a character in this MOVIE. This is basically what I predicted in our “Future” issue. I have never seen anything so dystopian and craven. Also, the fact that a central scene in a Netflix movie involves two characters watching 12 hours of Netflix is the most haunting thing I’ve ever encountered in this life. Netflix trying to normalize and romanticize a robotic devotion to its services via its own content is some darkly auto-cannibalistic, masturbatory behavior. I don’t know that I’ll ever be okay again.

Jackson: As Tolstoy once wrote, every cheapo Christmas movie is haunting in its own way, but The Knight Before Christmas is specifically haunting in all sorts of meta-textual ways. There’s the Alexa and binge-watching mentions, which felt like they should be illegal, especially because they led to scenes where Sir Cole spoke in American idioms he’d learned from TV like “modern technology is lit AF.” But there’s also the casting: Midway through I realized that Josh Whitehouse was supposed to star in that canned Game of Thrones prequel, and his presence in Vanessa Hudgens’s Ohio away from a medieval setting made it all the clearer that he was actually stuck in TV-career purgatory. As for Vanessa Hudgens, I had to confront the realization that even if Vanessa’s always playing the same character (Gabriella forever), I exist within that small band of a generation that obsessed over the High School Musicals and will always be invested in her career. Even if it primarily involves Netflix Christmas movies and the occasional live TV musical? That made me personally feel like I was caught in my own version of Bracebridge, Ohio, a.k.a. Christmas purgatory.

Rachel: Wait … is his name actually Josh??? HAHAHA. I swear to God I didn’t know that.

Jackson: It really is Josh! Which tracks because he at all times looks ready to ditch school and go skate and just hang for a bit. Would look good in one of those stoner sweatshirts.

Rachel: I am screaming. Wow. Okay, so the Game of Thrones connection, as well as the meta-textual notions of limbo, cannot be discounted. It’s particularly painful to watch this tragic attempt at relevancy knowing that Netflix just canceled the best show of all time, The OA, to give $50 million to the creators of Game of Thrones, the worst show of all time. Not content to merely dispose of its remaining artistic credibility and desperately throw money it doesn’t have at the Game of Thrones creators, Netflix now feels it must make all of its content lightly reminiscent of Game of Thrones? Relatedly, can we talk about the “Old Crone”? Every time Josh screamed “Old Crone?!” I died laughing. Could you just call someone “Old Crone” in the olden days? What the fuck!

Jackson: Right, I know the old crone is supposed to be a medieval witch who has the power to send handsome men from the Middle Ages to the present until they kiss someone who once appeared in the movie Second Act, but can we at least treat her with a little respect? “Old Crone” seems rude, even for the Middle Ages! Speaking of which, going into the movie, I felt like I could easily predict that the gimmick would be that Sir Cole has a charming sense of chivalry that wins over Vanessa Hudgens, who needs a Real Man in her life, but I did not expect the ways that The Knight Before Christmas presented that argument to be so ludicrous. For instance, Vanessa’s ex straight-up cheated on her, and she’s still wandering around being a nice schoolteacher trying to be nice about it. Also, Sir Cole proves his worth near the end of the movie by rescuing Vanessa’s niece from the middle of a frozen lake by telling her to crawl across the ice like a snail, a heroic act, but a deeply random one.

Rachel: The lake scene destroyed me on several levels. First of all, Claire is far too old to “wander off and get lost in the snow.” Secondly, why does Sir Cole know so much about the behavior of snails? Seems fake. Also, Bracebridge is such a small town that they have ONE police officer (known only as “Officer Stevens,” and omnipresent), one big Christmas banquet for the whole town, literally one student (Paige, who asks Brooke for romantic advice and keeps running into her about town), and streets so empty that a first-time driver can barrel down them recklessly and not hurt anyone. I call bullshit on Claire’s “accidental” journey to the center of the lake. This bitch knew exactly what she was doing. I think Claire was acting out, and appropriately so — in nearly every scene, her mother, Emmanuelle Chriqui, shames her for her love of sweets. “My mom never lets me have sweets,” she tells Vanessa Hudgens in an early scene. Later, her mom says, “Stop eating those sprinkles. They are for the cake.” And later, her mom expresses frustration that she “gave away my cookies to everyone in the neighborhood.” Claire has a lot of repressed anger that she worked out by “disappearing.”

Jackson: Claire, the hero of this story, understands that Bracebridge is a Christmas Pleasantville and is desperately trying to break out. I support her in all of this, especially since this movie has a confused approach to food in general, given that Sir Cole is obsessed with hot chocolate and repeatedly calls it mead, despite the fact that hot chocolate in no way resembles mead and isn’t even alcohol (meadery owner Dylan Sprouse, were you insulted by this?). Additionally, Sir Cole teaches Brooke how to bake bread, and she’s obsessed with it, so much so that they bake an entire kitchen’s worth of bread in seemingly less than a day. This seems too impossible to bear, even if it does lead to a wild scene wherein Vanessa Hudgens sadly discovers a bean in her bread while wishing that her dashing knight would come back to her.

Speaking of which, I kind of wished that Sir Cole had stayed in the Middle Ages instead of coming back to Vanessa in the present. It feels like all she really needed was a nice fling after a bad breakup to remind her that she’s still got it, and not a lifelong commitment to a knight who now wants to be a cop. Also, doesn’t he have knight things to do back in medieval England? It’s 1334, the Hundred Years’ War is about to start. His king Timothée Chalamet needs him!

Rachel: I did wonder about the implications of Sir Cole leaving 1334, potentially ripping an irreparable hole in the time-space continuum and creating untold butterfly-effect ramifications in the future. I also wondered: Why did Vanessa Hudgens always bake bread in dry-clean-only tops? Why did she wear full makeup to breakfast every day? Why doesn’t she have any friends outside of her sister? Why does she own at least four winter coats? Why did she inherit her parents’ gigantic house but her sister, who actually has a family, did not? Is she sleeping with Officer Stevens on the side? Why did she only take one bite of her burger at the diner? Why does she wear jeans and constricting tops when she’s lounging around in her own house watching Netflix for 12 hours? Who cleaned up after the Christmas banquet, because those old people left after they said they’d clean up? Why did she say she had “so many Christmas chores” to do when her entire house was already decorated for Christmas? Why does one scene focus entirely on Sir Cole drinking bottled water inside her home? Feel free to answer all or none of these questions.

Jackson: I feel like the answer to most of these questions lies in the fact that Brooke, a “schoolteacher,” is clearly Princess Switch’s Stacey from Chicago in some sort of Witness Protection Program. The single bite of her burger, however? Unexplainable.

Given that the Old Crone (sorry to call her that, but the movie really doesn’t give me many options) pops up again at the end of the movie to cast a spell on Sir Cole’s brother, I have to assume that Netflix is planning some sort of Another Knight Before Christmas, Too. The idea of him learning about Alexa (and probably some new tech-company monstrosity) is terrifying, but I do hope that movie would answer some of our questions.

Rachel: Before we wrap up, I want to get your take on two minor characters in this film, both of whom utterly baffled me. The first: Brooke’s redheaded neighbor, who appears out of literal nowhere to flirt aggressively with Sir Cole. It’s revealed that she is Brooke’s high-school nemesis (“She was voted Biggest Flirt,” says Brooke, with visible disgust) and Brooke feels threatened by her. She appears in only one more scene for four seconds: She attempts to kiss Sir Cole, and then is like, “Actually, never mind, you are clearly in love with Brooke, good luck!” The second character I need to discuss is the young man who pickpockets an old woman’s purse. Sir Cole tackles him to the ground and Brooke exclaims, “Marshall Gellar?!” as if she knows him. The subtitles here say “Bruce Douglas?!” Neither of these names are explained or mentioned again. WHAT’S GOING ON.

Jackson: At one point watching this show, I just wrote down “please stop slut-shaming Alison,” because she never does anything to deserve it, except for flirt with a hot knight who has appeared in her town. Bracebridge seems small, there probably aren’t many men who aren’t cops around! Alison and Claire really need to team up. The Marshall Gellar/Bruce Douglas thing, meanwhile, has to be a glitch in the Knight Before Christmas reality, and a sign that it’s structurally flawed due to its recent collision with the Princess Switch reality. Vanessa’s Christmas movies are collapsing in on themselves. It’s the only explanation.

*We originally mixed up the names of the fictional Netflix Christmas nations, and regret both the error and the implication that we don’t recognize their distinct Christmas sovereignty.

A Serious Conversation About The Knight Before Christmas