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The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse Springs to Life for Christmas

Photo courtesy Apple TV+

Debuting Christmas Day, the crisply-paced, gorgeously-animated, and intimately-heartfelt adaptation of British illustrator, artist, and author Charlie Mackesy’s much-heralded The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse will warm the cockles of any cold heart. It’s a near-perfect short film, ideal for the children on a winter day, whether Christmas or not. But it’s also one with a message of courage, hope, and self-reliance any of us adults in the room can bear to hear.

The Boy walks with the Mole under a snowy tree.
Photo: courtesy Apple TV+

Mackesy’s book illustrated the adventures of a young boy lost in a snowy wood, where he encounters, first, a friendly (talking) mole, then a threatening (talking) fox, and finally a remarkable (talking) horse with a secret. Inked in simple, flowing black-and-white with infrequent watercolors, the 2019 book has become something of an instant classic for its over seven million readers with its message of hope in uncertain times, depicted through the unlikely friendship developed between the boy and his animal companions. Read by Oprah, touted by The New York Times and the Washington Post, and making the author a middle-age social media sensation, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse gave its readers a chance to reflect and reconnect during a pandemic that separated friends and family and threatened our collective mental health.

This new animated film—co-directed (with Peter Maynton) and co-written (with Jon Croker) by Mackesy himself—stays faithful to the letter and lesson of Mackesy’s book, without straying from the original’s plot or dialogue. Nor, of course, should it: the story’s pastoral narrative, colorful characters, and generous wisdom are what made it resonate with millions of readers. None of Mackesy’s readers could possibly be disappointed by this close adaptation.

The greatest liberty taken—and perhaps the greatest achievement—in adaptation is the artwork. Mackesy’s book illustrated the quartet’s adventures in a whimsical, simple, unadorned black on white with occasional watercolor. No backgrounds to speak of, little shading, stark and flowing lines. This new short film, just a quick 35 minutes, elaborates on Mackesy’s style by providing full watercolor-like hues, rich three-dimensional backgrounds, and expressively detailed depth and shading. In an era when hand-drawn animation has sadly fallen out of favor, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse is a welcome Christmas gift indeed.

The Boy sits on the Horse with his friends the Fox and the Mole.
Photo: courtesy Apple TV+

The film’s rich beauty would be reason enough alone to watch, as it’s as handsome and elegant as any in recent memory. But again the reason Mackesy’s book struck such a resonant chord with so many, many readers, especially since the pandemic, was its message of hope and encouragement, especially for anyone who found themselves challenged by depression or grief. Indeed, its lessons held special meaning for any reader whose mental health was made less resilient by the pandemic and its aftermath’s constant testing of our resolve.

Some of those lessons might fly right over the heads of the young ones watching early Christmas morning, but others—treating those different from you with respect, choosing kindness over hostility, finding solace in the love of others—have their value for viewers of any age. As a whole, the film feels more flowing and expressive than pedantic, and it’s one I hope most parents will feel comfortable watching with their children.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse stars Tom Hollander (Pride and Prejudice, White Lotus, The Night Manager) as The Mole, Idris Elba (Thor series, Beasts of No Nation, Luther) as The Fox, Gabriel Byrne (In Treatment, All Things Bright and Beautiful) as The Horse, and newcomer Jude Coward Nicoll as The Boy. Produced by Matthew Freud, JJ Abrams, Hannah Minghella, Cara Speller and executive produced by Woody Harrelson and Jony Ive, the film features an original score by Isobel Waller-Bridge.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse debuts on BBC1 and BBC iPlayer on Christmas Eve in the U.K. and on the streaming service Apple TV+ on Christmas Day. A documentary Charlie Mackesy: The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse and Me will be broadcast on BBC2.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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