By Ralph Novak
December 11, 1989 12:00 PM

Rebecca Harrell, Sam Elliott

For most of this film, the audience is kept in the dark as to whether the title character is the Prancer, from Santa’s team, out to see if he can cut it as a solo act the way Rudolph did. In fact the audience is kept in the dark in general, since almost every scene—whether it’s in a dimly illuminated barn, a blizzard, a forest at night, an attic, a shed or the cab of a truck—is so badly lighted it’s hard to see the actors’ faces.

It’s a tribute to veteran TV writer Greg Taylor’s script and, especially, to the acting of 9-year-old Ms. Harrell that the movie remains engaging and palatably sweet—even when you can’t see it very well.

Rebecca is a little farm girl whose mother has died. (Rebecca’s only previous acting experience was as a singing litterbug in a school play in Burlington, Vt.) When she becomes convinced that a reindeer she sees in the woods is Santa’s Prancer, her surly father, Elliott, remains skeptical.

“Reindeer don’t fly,” he tells Rebecca. “I hate to be the one to tell you that.” Then he calls a reindeer “a cow with antlers.”

Elliott is burdened with a lot of things: poverty, loneliness and a character that makes him an unrelenting grump until he and his little co-star bring off a reconciliation scene with nicely restrained emotion.

Meanwhile, Rebecca also has to convert a crotchety neighbor, winningly played by Cloris Leachman, and an older brother, portrayed by 12-year-old John Duda with just the right level of sentiment.

Producer Raffaella DeLaurentiis, Dino’s daughter, and director John (Bang the Drum Slowly) Hancock apparently didn’t lavish bags of money on the project.

But there’s little question about whether Rebecca will succeed in reuniting Santa’s team and little fear that Prancer will become a reindeerburger. The ending—shadowy and shoddy in special effects as it is—has the right uplift. While Prancer won’t make anyone forget Miracle on 34th Street, it should move the featured reindeer up in the Christmas hierarchy. Donner and Blitzen haven’t done anything new in years, the elves are seeming a bit too ’80s, and Frosty has been phoning it in for a long time. (G)