Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: Well Ken, another year has come and gone, and with it, yet another stamp in our increasingly crowded Aldovian passport. I never thought, when we first watched Netflix’s A Christmas Prince in 2017 that we’d still be here, two years later, attempting to digest A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby. I should have been more cynical, and known that this particular brand of luxury fantasy porn is irresistible to the “dreaming of a more glamorous life” suburban viewership.
Ken: Jim, I share your bewilderment. For me—a guy who has worked every flavor of shitty retail and then chained myself to industries like news and government that respect no days off—the holidays have often been a time of solitary contemplation on where I’m at and how far I’ve come. Maybe the folks who made A Christmas Prince With A Vengeance should have done the same thing. Is this not the worst one of these? I’m being serious.
Jim: Without re-watching A Christmas Prince and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding —both of which I have no intention of doing, let me make clear—it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty. But I’m pretty sure this was the most bored I ever felt while watching one, if that’s more or less saying the same thing. There is so much filler, and so little movie here, Ken. At least the last movie was filled with all kinds of inane little subplots. This one barely has any to speak of.
Ken: That’s more or less what I mean. So much of this is so inconsequential, and there just aren’t that many distractions, whether you’re talking FRANTIC SCENE CHANGES like last year’s trip to a bar, or funny little subplots like her father crushing on a tough Russian cook. Which has been totally abandoned, as far as I can tell.
But you know what we do have this year, Jim?
Jim: I wish I could say “more wolf attacks,” but sadly no.
Ken: A new CINEMATIC UNIVERSE, revolving around A Christmas Prince! I’ll just bet, Jim, that you didn’t bother firing up one of Netflix’s other originals, The Knight Before Christmas. Well guess what: They drop a sly reference to this series. The fateful Aldovian acorn ornament shows up, and a character even says it was purchased in Aldovia. So there. Look out, Marvel.
Jim: You’ve been put on blast, MCU. Vanessa Hudgens and Rose McIver are comin’ for ya.
Ken: Motion Picture Corporation of America is taking a shot at Disney. Everybody clear the street.
Jim: A quick look at IMDB seems to indicate that none of the films in the Christmas Prince series share any directors or writers with The Knight Before Christmas, so I’m guessing this is either a sincere shout-out to their stable-mates or the equivalent of a Netflix original movie Easter egg.
Ken: There are folks who earnestly love these things, and I guess that is a cute little wink at it. Unfortunately, we are not those people. It’s official: Nothing brings the Grinch out of me like this movie series. Catch us up for the readers just joining us Jim.
Jim: How could I possibly condense the rich tapestry of Christmas Prince plotlines into only a few sentences? Oh, wait: Amber is a former gossip journalist who traveled to Aldovia for a story, fell in love with the hunky playboy prince, got married, prevented the country from being first stolen away by rapscallion brother Simon, and then helped save it from an economic crisis with the implementation of the “New Aldovia” initiative. And now she’s pregnant. That about wraps it up.
By the way, I love in the beginning of Royal Baby when she mentions the New Aldovia initiative and they cut to her and her beau at the end of a press interview, being like ”...and that’s how we’ll fund the new tech center. And the new hospital.” Because clearly, there’s a very easy and obvious way to do those things; we just didn’t enter the room early enough to hear what it was.
Ken: That’s standard rom-com nonsense, to not care about the calculus behind important stuff. What’s funny is how MUCH of the previous movies revolved around sweet, treacly, feel-good silliness, and how much just doesn’t make it into the recap. Case in point, you remember the “we’re setting up a million relationships” conga line at the end of the last movie? One or two of those hookups are still happening. The rest have all been totally forgotten. And those that do remain, save one, have no impact on the plot whatsoever.
Jim: I believe that was just the writer of the last film serving up as many hittable pitches as possible to whoever was going to write this movie, to use or dispose of as they saw fit. But yes, everyone had new romances hinted at in the end of Royal Wedding. Little princess Emily. Queen Alice Krige. Each of Amber’s two friends.
Ken: This time around, we rejoin Amber about a year after the last movie, having become the beloved new Queen of Aldovia and due to give birth January 11. I wonder if the baby will arrive early? She is still faithfully blogging, of course, though she composes precisely one post in the whole movie. I guess we’re abandoning even that.
Jim: You do have to wonder what the sovereign of a foreign power would write in her gossip blog on a daily basis.
Ken: The plot arrives in the form of a 600-year-old treaty. We’re told that the country of Penglia settled their war with Aldovia 600 years ago, and every 100 years they come back to add another page to the growing scroll that says they’re still pals.
Jim: I love that there was an actual historic flashback here to the first signing, which ended what is described by butler Mr. Little as “a fearsome and brutal war.” It’s sort of hard to imagine literal war, in a universe as soft and fluffy as The Christmas Prince/The Knight Before Christmas.
So Mr. Little, under the guise of giving Amber a refresher, essentially sits the audience down with a literal map and explains the history of this grievance, and the treaty. This also gives me what is by far my favorite thing in The Royal Baby—an actual map of Europe with Aldovia and Penglia on it—Aldovia is the blob in yellow below. And there’s sooooo much to unpack once you get a closer look at this thing.
Ken: I didn’t bother to freeze-frame. How far are they from Sokovia?
Jim: First observation: Wasn’t it implied through all the previous films that Aldovia was this tiny, pristine nation? Because on the map, it’s literally the size of almost all of Western Europe. It takes up an area that is roughly the size of France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy combined.
Ken: Do we see scale anywhere? Is there any real world on it at all? I’m strangely invested in this.
Jim: Oh, there’s real world on it. We even get a close-up.
Ken: Good heavens. What the actual hell?? I didn’t see all of the Iberian peninsula there before!!
Jim: Alright, so you can see the Italy and more there. Using a real-world map for reference, I can see that “tiny” Aldovia comprises an area that consists of modern day Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria and more. Greece narrowly survived being swallowed up by Aldovia, apparently.
Ken: Is this an alternate history where the German Wehrmacht stalled out in Aldovia? Where Richard’s grandfather sat at the table with Stalin and Roosevelt?
Jim, Dracula’s castle is in Aldovia.
Jim: Oh my god, I was so focused on geography that I never considered the ramifications of all these other aspects of Aldovia in European history. Was Aldovia an Axis power?
Penglia, on the other hand, is directly across the Black Sea, occupying an area that includes modern day Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Southern tip of Russia bordering Ukraine. You can also see “Belgravia” on there, another neighbor country that is mentioned once or twice, but never actually factors into this story in any way. It sits pretty much where modern day Ukraine sits.
Ken: You were asking me “Is this the end of this series?” and the presence of Belgravia basically tells me you’re dreaming. They absolutely are going there or having them over or SOMETHING.
Jim: You’d think they would be the ones they had an ancient war with, considering all the shared border. I assume the Penglian war was a naval invasion.
Ken: Never start a land war in Penglia.
Jim: I love that the art department for this film drew up these maps. I wonder who told them where any of this stuff should be. Have we ALREADY spent more time thinking about this than anyone involved with the film did?
Ken: Yes, but good lord. This is more egregious than when The Simpsons stopped caring and just started setting things in the Springfield Badlands, or The Springfield Tundra. Anyhow, the Penglians show up a few days before Christmas to sign the treaty. Amber is far along in her pregnancy, and a whole subplot revolves around … is this obstetric porn, Jim?
Jim: I assume you’re talking about the lady doctor who tries to use mental reconditioning and reframing to convince Amber that her birth will be a painless, orgasmic experience?
Affluent, luxury Christmas fantasy pregnancy porn
Ken: That and basically all of it. The cooing over ultrasounds and everything. Jim, I’m dating a woman who had four kids. She describes pregnancy as basically a natural disaster contained entirely within one’s own body. This is bordering on propaganda, some of this.
Jim: What the first Christmas Prince is to unrealistic ideas about romance and falling in love, and the second Christmas Prince is to unrealistic ideas about glamorous weddings, this one is to unrealistic ideas about perfect birthing rituals. It seems fitting. Meanwhile, tell us about the Penglian delegation, Ken, and the Penglian people.
Ken: You’re asking me because I’m Asian, aren’t you??
Ken: The Penglians code as well-heeled East Asian royalty, which translates into a traditionalism so rigid that even the majordomos of Aldovia think they could lighten up a bit. They write in vertical script, eagle-eyed viewers will note upon looking at the treaties. They are supposed to be the source of some dramatic tension in the movie. They absolutely are not. Even when the whole diplomatic mission appears on the brink of disaster, they are nothing but polite and solicitous.
The Penglian delegation
Ken: We only meet three of them:
King Tai, whose name I googled to help me remember just now. His severe wife, Queen Ming, and their attache, who once dated scummy cousin Simon and who is quite jazzed to see him again.
Jim: I could not for the life of me remember the King’s name either, but the attendant’s name is Lynn, and Simon immediately cozies up to her as soon as she arrives, despite the fact that his girlfriend Melanie is standing right there next to him.
Ken: That’s Melanie, the supportive black friend of Amber, for those following along at home.
Just start pawing at your ex-boyfriend’s face, right in front of his new girlfriend
Jim: Queen Ming, on the other hand, seems like the sort of role they would really, really have wanted to get Michelle Yeoh for, if only they could afford her.
Ken: I thought the same thing. Her character very much reminded me of Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians, which it feels like this was partly inspired by.
Jim: Undoubtedly. I would like to note, of course, that all three of these actors are Chinese (I believe), despite Penglia being (as we established) located in modern day Georgia or Azerbaijan. Which is to say: They should absolutely not look Chinese, right?
Ken: Well, that’s actually something I’m willing to let slide because we’ve evidently crossed the threshold into full-on madness. For all we know, Penglia defeated the great Khans back in the day. All human history and geopolitics have become unmoored based on that map. That and a lot of folks might not know that Uzbekistan, for instance, is a country where many folks “look” Asian. So whatever, is what I’m saying.
Anyhow, they are SUPER TRADITIONAL. Because Asians are really strict, right?
Jim: And crazy rich, yes.
Ken: Essentially the only impact of any kind this has on the plot is when Amber puts her foot in her mouth right away by piping up with an uncalled-for “hello” out of turn at their official ceremonial greeting and everybody bristles.
Jim: That brings us to the main crux of the plot: On the night when the traditional, centennial re-signing of the treaty is supposed to go down, they all gather in the formal drawing room and unveil the treaty box … only to find that the treaty is missing! Ye gads!
Ken: Yes, a centuries-old diplomatic arrangement will fall apart because somebody misplaced a scroll. But the stakes are even higher, Jim! There’s a legendary CURSE associated with the treaty. You don’t sign, your firstborn DIES.
Jim: It’s never quite specified that “dies” is a thing, I don’t think, but the firstborn of the offending nation will be “cursed.” Princess Emily discovers this factoid on some scroll and is deeply shaken by it, and although Queen Alice Krige tells her to keep her precocious little mouth shut, she’s all like “Hey Amber, your baby is doomed, gurl.”
Alice Krige, meanwhile, has a few amazingly ridiculous lines while trying to reassure Amber that the curse is probably not a big deal. They have her literally saying things like “sorcery fell out of favor centuries ago,” and “sorcery was discredited a long time ago.”
“We executed the last of the sorcerers in the 1980s, dear, don’t worry.”
Ken: This is where I would make some joke like “The Borg assimilated all sorcerers centuries ago.” Why are we not watching First Contact instead? That’s a great movie.
Anyway, this whole treaty situation should signal a burst of rising action, but instead it kicks off a part of the plot where the writers clearly are hamstrung by the mandates of the film to both BE A NARRATIVE and not introduce any element that will make any viewer less than 100% comfortable.
Jim: For me, it’s these stretches of the film that almost define the whole Christmas Prince series—the time-wasting holiday activity montages and whatnot. That’s the essence of this rejected Hallmark Channel franchise. Every Christmas Prince movie always has a stretch where the characters should be working to solve some kind of serious problem, but are instead sledding, or skating, or decorating, or making cocoa, or playing holiday-themed games of chance.
Hey, shouldn’t we be trying to prevent that war right now?
Ken: In this one, it’s baby shower games, skating, and taking a tour of Aldovia’s Christkindl market. Do you think in this world, Chicago’s Christkindlmarket is an Aldovian tradition? Was Anton Cermak of Aldovian descent? I’m sorry, Jim. This film has driven me mad.
Jim: I enjoyed how their famed Christmas market looks like half a dozen booths at a country fair. The budget on this one … is a bit threadbare at times. Did you notice how their honeymoon was just the two actors greenscreened against a stock beach sunset?
“Where’d you go for your honeymoon? To a Windows lock screen!”
Ken: That immediately jumped out at me. You guys couldn’t even do that as part of a cast party at the end, a quick weekend in the Bahamas or something to celebrate and bust out a camera for one shot?
Jim: Turns out there are no beaches in Romania, folks—well, no tropical beaches, anyway. Let us return to the mystery on hand, though. Ebert’s law of the conservation of characters gives us a pretty damn small pool of suspects here, which runs counter to the way people typically make mystery films, but who am I to judge? In deducing who stole the scroll, it pretty much comes down to a few camps.
A. The Penglians, none of whom seem giddy to jump start a war for no reason. Also, it’s started by Princess Emily that neither nation has a standing army, so it doesn’t seem like a “war” would really go anywhere.
Ken: We couldn’t have the specter of THAT hanging over our heads, could we?
The Christmas Prince is like The Giver in the sense that unhappiness has been outlawed. Further suspects include:
B. Simon, who Amber immediately suspects of trying to somehow weasel his way back into power, despite the fact that this would be giving up the entire redemption plot Simon had in Royal Wedding. Also: Melanie suspects him of cheating on her with attaché Lynn, but this is the most clear misdirection in the history of filmic misdirections.
C. A minor character doing it for no good reason.
Dear readers: Guess which turns out to be the case.
Ken: I guess we’ll get to the reveal when we get to it. During this tense exchange we get board games and all the aforementioned wheel-spinning. At some point, though, we do finally get the hell to the point. Princess Emily and the Borg Queen head into the dungeon, hinted at in the last movie, to go looking for the scroll, and miraculously find it. They then get locked in a cell, but almost immediately find a way out because Queen Krige can pick a lock with a hairpin.
Given that the dungeon seems like a significant fall risk, they might have chosen more prudently than the girl on crutches and the senior citizen queen.
Jim: I was genuinely waiting for a ghost of some murdered Aldovian royal to show up at this point, Ken. At no point has there been any suggestion of the supernatural in this series, but when you’re making a bad movie, that’s always a call you can make. I don’t watch Christmas Prince movies and think, ‘Oh, they wouldn’t dare do ____.’ There’s always a chance they will do ____.
Ken: Readers, they do NOT. What does happen, during this whole thing, is Amber suddenly going into labor because of all the stress. Her doctor gets stuck in a snow drift because weather has grounded all flights and closed all roads, and so Richard hops aboard the royal Clydesdale and gallops off to get her.
Jim: He hears the wolves howling in the distance, and says something like “not today!” to no one in particular, referencing the first film.
Ken: You beat me to it, Jim. This, by the way, is the second time the series has joshed on the wolf attack from the first film.
Jim: Just how often do people in Aldovia get attacked by wolves?
Ken: They were at U.S. school shooting levels before that modernization initiative.
Jim: To make another Simpsons reference, they should get stealth bombers and such with “wolf patrol” painted on the side doing flyovers.
Ken: They have a joint anti-wolf defense agreement with the Ugandan Ghetto Air Force.
All of this is resolved, fear not. Emily and her mother rush in with the treaty, and it’s revealed that Simon and Lynn were actually working on a way to tighten it up and were totally not grooving under the mistletoe. Simon even proposes and Melanie says yes, like 30 seconds after she just thought he was a traitor.
Jim: This is the most classically “romantic comedy” thing in the whole movie. Two characters acting ultra suspicious, shooting each other sideways glances and sneaking off together so they can work on redrafting a treaty. Classic rom-com bullshit, there.
Ken: Tell us who actually stole the treaty, Jim, I can feel our audience’s anticipation.
Jim: By this point, Amber has pooled her mental powers with that of the unborn baby inside her, and used that moment of clarity to figure it all out. The culprit is … Mr. Little, the loyal butler! It was he who stole the scroll, and he who prevented the scroll-sniffing dogs—this is an actual subplot that we didn’t even mention—from finding it. Why did he do it? Well, I had to literally go back and rewatch a few segments in order to figure it out, but he’s the scion of an Aldovian family whose ancestor was suspected of being murdered by a Penglian prince. And now, 600 years later, he’s for some reason honor-bound to seek vengeance via … dissolving a treaty? Did this make any more sense to you than it did to me?
He actually says the words “blood oath.”
Ken: No. His dastardly confession after he’s pinned barely elucidates the whole thing. Because this is not the point of this movie. The point is that we see some cheery holiday traditions and get to imagine our own pregnancy glow.
Jim: That’s exactly right, Ken. They usher him out and everyone just shrugs and is like “well thank god that’s over.” It’s the least dramatic parlor scene of all time.
Ken: There is so much we could focus on here that just isn’t that important but is why people ostensibly want to watch these. Sahil and Andrew, the wedding planner from the last movie and Amber’s supportive gay friend, respectively, showing up to be silly and basically do nothing important, for one. Another point of tension comes from Ming not wanting to take credit for her accomplishments or have the wives sign the treaty because It Is Just Not Done for women to do that. She softens up, of course.
Which makes me think: Scorsese has complained about Marvel movies not being “cinema.” I don’t want to give him a hard time about it, but has he ever seen this stuff?
Jim: You think for about five minutes that Queen Ming is supposed to be the antagonist because everyone tells us she’s so severe, but of course she warms up and becomes loving toward Amber within a day. It’s exactly like Princess Emily in the first film, if you’ll recall. One of the types of feel-good wish fulfillment these films provide is the hope that you’ll just be able to breeze into the lives of people and immediately make them all love you. That you could be that universally loved gadfly who is beloved by even the most curmudgeonly folk, because you’re just that irresistibly charming.
Even this smug lady can’t resist the gravitational pull of Amber’s good-natured stupidity.
Ken: That would be fine, if there were other stuff going on to galvanize the cast into a cohesive group. But this is SO BORING. If we are staring down a fourth installment next year, it may be my New Year’s resolution for us not to bother with it, Jim, I’m not gonna lie. We haven’t got any butler blood oath binding us.
Jim: My plan is to blindly hope that the series is over, with all the good-natured naivete possessed by Amber. Who gives birth to a healthy, four-month old baby girl with a full head of hair, by the way. They name her “Elleri,” which I guess is a name. About 100 extras show up to the grand gender reveal press conference.
Ken: Fun fact: I had a full head of hair when I was born. My deliverer was astonished, my mother tells me. I didn’t get a press conference, though.
Jim: You’re lucky they didn’t put you in some kind of institute.
Ken: Jim, I hope your own holidays are filled with just as much frivolous Christmas nonsense and utterly devoid of geopolitical curses. I think we both deserve a Christmas vacation after this feature.
Jim: I think I’ll go to Romania and soak in some of that traditional Aldovian meat jelly cuisine.
Ken: And I surely will ask my mother if she can replicate whatever the hell Penglian cuisine is. Because we’re Asian. Happy holidays, Jim.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.