Beautifully drawn, sensitively acted by an all-star voice cast, and written to carefully corral the emotions of viewers young and old, this one is quite the Christmas miracle. Premiering December 25 on Apple TV+, it’s one of the best animated films the streaming service has yet produced.
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse review
As the short film starts, a boy (voiced by Jude Coward Nicoll) wanders through the forest, looking for his home, when he gets lost and decides to sit for a spell. Out from under the earth comes a talking mole (voiced by Tom Hollander). They have a ways to go together into the snow-covered wilderness all around them, but they’re worried about what dangers await them. So they hunker down for the night in a tree.
Their fears are realized when a fox (voiced by Idris Elba) stops by their tree, sniffs in their direction, and then keeps walking. Soon afterward, they hear a squealing sound, like an animal in pain. The pair disembark from the tree and go to investigate. Turns out the fox has been caught in a trap.
The mole and the boy want to free the fox, but he snarls and threatens to kill them. Eventually, the mole overcomes his fears and reasons with the fox long enough to free the trapped predator. Then the fox leaves them in peace.
The following day, the boy and the mole start their journey again. The mole slips and falls down a hill into a river, where the current begins to pull him away. The boy can’t catch him in time, and it looks like it’s over for the poor creature. But then the fox appears out of nowhere and saves the mole.
Finding a new friend
The fox soon vanishes from sight but returns later in the day, just in time for the group to make one more friend — a majestic white horse (voiced by Gabriel Byrne), who emerges from the woods and begins to frolic and cavort with the little group, making snow angels and the like.
The horse allows the boy and the mole on his back and, with the fox in tow, it’s off they go, in search of the boy’s home. They ride very fast and the boy falls off. He starts crying, and the horse tells him not to be ashamed of his tears. “Asking for help isn’t giving up, it’s refusing to give up,” says the horse.
A storm hits, and the four companions seek shelter in the woods, keeping each other warm by staying close to one another. They continue on afterward, and the boy gets discouraged because their journey seems like it might never end. Then the horse confesses something. He can fly. He has wings he keeps secret because the other horses got jealous and it made him feel bad. They tell him they love him with or without wings, so he unfurls them, and they all climb his back and take off into the night sky.
They find the boys’ home and, as he’s about to tearfully leave them, he does an about-face. “Home isn’t always a place, is it?” he asks. And then they sit together in the snow looking at the stars.
Nothing beats kindness for real holiday enchantment
Directed by original author Charlie Mackesy and veteran illustaror Peter Baynton, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a mighty little work. I cried all throughout the final five minutes as the creatures threaten to separate and talk about how the most important thing in the world is to love. The message is simple and ubiquitous, but it’s effective because it’s true.
Every few minutes, the animals impart some little pearl of wisdom. (“Nothing beats kindness. It sits quietly behind all things.”) These will make you reach for your eyes. At one point, the mole says, “One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.” That’s really only half true, but it’s not a bad message to send.
The animation is just breathtaking, a mix of hand-drawn and computer compositing that has a dreamy, old-fashioned quality to it. When I was a kid, you’d find out about off-the-beaten-path children’s animation through VHS compilations or on PBS. This new film is like something you’d stumble upon in such a fashion. It’s a wonderful, stripped-down little cartoon with acres of poignancy and a lot of heart.
Outstanding voice acting
Appropriately enough, the voice performances are all wonderful and perfectly pitched. Idris Elba is amazing here. The actor’s voice is one of his best qualities, but he’s so often hiding behind accents that it’s difficult to appreciate how sonorous and hefty it can be. Tom Hollander is amazingly chipper and funny as the mole. Combine that with the adorable animation — the mole’s every movement is too cute for words — and you’ve got one of the most lovable characters in film this year. And Gabriel Byrne’s coffee-rich brogue gives incredible warmth and depth to the horse, without ever overplaying his hand.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is just about the perfect thing to watch with your family this year. It’s a reminder that things will get bad, but there’s always love.
Watch The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse on Apple TV+
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse premieres December 25 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.