The Pitch: While setting up cameras Ghost Adventures-style to catch Santa Claus in the act on Christmas Eve, estranged siblings Kate (Darby Camp) and Teddy (Judah Lewis) find themselves crossing paths with Kris Kringle himself (Kurt Russell) and stowing away on his magical sleigh. Unfortunately, in the fracas, St. Nick and the kids find themselves stranded in Chicago with Santa’s sleigh, reindeer, and sack of toys tossed to the four winds. With the help of the kids’ plucky resourcefulness and Santa’s encyclopedic Jedi-mind-trick knowledge of the childhood dreams of everyone he meets, Team Tinsel races across the city to get Santa’s journey back on track before Christmas Spirit™ is depleted from the world. (The last time that happened, the film claims, humanity was plunged into the Dark Ages. So, you know, the stakes are high.)
Snakey Plissmas: Now that Netflix is firmly on track to horn in on the Lifetime Christmas movie game, it stands to reason they’d push through their own take on the “wacky Santa” genre. There’s nothing in The Christmas Chronicles* that hasn’t been seen before, from the “Christmas Spirit” ticking clock of Elf to the magical-realist shortcuts for Santa’s tricks from The Santa Clause – Santa zapping around the world through Aurora Borealis-esque wormholes and so on. The genre has given audiences enough ‘broken families healed through the power of Christmas’ melodramas to choke a reindeer, so don’t expect any surprises there either.
For what it’s worth, this Chris Columbus-produced romp still manages to skate by on a fair amount of charm, a bowl full of it coming from Russell as old Saint Nick. Playing Papa Noel like a jolly Jack Burton, Russell’s working-man Santa has a twinkle in his eye and swagger to spare, walking into a room like he owns everything (likely because he got it for them for Christmas). His interactions with the public are not unlike the snake-charmer alchemy of Robert Redford in The Old Man & the Gun, winning people over with a twinkle in his eye and effortless recall of their childhood wishes. He rankles against the public’s perception of him, sneering at the more rotund depictions in Coca-Cola ads and saying “I don’t do ho-ho-ho anymore” when prompted by fans. As Santas go, Russell treads similar snow as Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin, but it’s still a joy to see him dip back into the family-friendly territory he traveled, back when he was a Disney Channel darling in his youth.
Groan for the Holidays: As fun as it is to watch Russell work, there’s more than a little coal in this particular stocking. His kid sidekicks, who are ostensibly the real protagonists of the story, are just the wrong side of precocious. Their family’s story is unnecessarily steeped in Yuletide tragedy; the Christmas-loving firefighter father (Oliver Hudson) died tragically a year or two back, giving the rebellious, car-stealing Teddy plenty of opportunities to whinge about his dead dad. Both child actors are good but not great, acting as decent foils for the over-the-top Santa while juggling the kind of simplistic emotional baggage about broken families that’s typical of treacly holiday flicks.
It’s in Chronicles’ latter half, however, that the holiday family movie cheesiness comes out in full force, to highly mixed results. The biggest culprit of this is the eventual reveal of what Santa’s elves look like in this universe – yup, they’re an army of obnoxious, lawn gnome-sized ghouls who speak in a nonsense elf language, director Clay Kaytis (The Angry Birds Movie) leaning hard into their Minions-level antics to a grating degree. Only one particularly cringe-worthy sequence, in which a jailed Santa conjures up some Christmas Spirit™ through an impromptu blues number (complete with Steven Van Zandt cameo), is delivered with almost enough gusto to make it work.
The Verdict: The Christmas Chronicles is a passable enough lark, and may well be on the upper end of the spectrum when it comes to modern cinematic Christmas fare. Russell’s Saint Nick carries a lot of the film’s charm on his fur-lined shoulders, and there are some delightful cameos from folks like Lamorne Morris and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Vella Lovell as cogs in Santa’s gift-giving wheel of fate. It still groans under the weight of all the too-broad kiddie gags in the film’s back end, but as Santa adventures go, you could do a lot worse than the Hallmark Channel version of Big Trouble at the North Pole.
Finally, as a minor bugaboo, why call this film The Christmas Chronicles? Independent of the title’s vagaries, the film features one chronicle at best. Give audiences an anthology series with Kurt Russell traveling around the globe getting into scrapes like Caine in Kung Fu every December 24th. Then we can talk.
Where’s It Playing?: Santa Claus is coming to towns around the world when The Christmas Chronicles premieres on Netflix on Thanksgiving Day, November 22nd.