Netflix’s Chris Columbus-produced Christmas comedy, The Christmas Chronicles, wagers that just a little bit of Kurt Russell as Santa Claus can justify the existence of an otherwise completely pointless Christmas movie. That wager pays off. Somewhat. Kurt Russell as Santa Claus is indeed something that should exist and his presence makes The Christmas Chronicles watchable. However, watchable is about as good as the film can muster. If it weren’t for the presence of Russell, The Christmas Chronicles would be the most painfully below average Christmas-y Christmas movie that ever Christmassed. For The Christmas Chronicles has all of the elements of only the most mediocre Lifetime holiday movies.
Are we introduced to a family through a series of camcorder videos with a date and time heads up display, even though no one uses a camcorder anymore? You betcha. Is one child a wild-eyed innocent believer in Santa while the older one is a jaded prick in need of some holiday cheer? One hundred percent. Is their beloved, saint-like firefighter father dead? Dead as Jacob Marley.
One year after their father’s death siblings Kate and Teddy Pierce (played by Darby Camp and Judah Lewis) are struggling to embrace the spirit of the season and get along. On Christmas Eve, Kate convinces her brother to pull an all-nighter with her to try to capture Santa Claus on video since she saw a mysterious red-sleeved arm in a video from a previous year.
Much to Teddy’s surprise (and no one else’s), Kate and Teddy do come across Santa. Not only that, they infiltrate his sleigh while he’s away and Santa freaks out when he comes back, dropping a sack of presents overboard. Now Kate and Teddy must help Santa reclaim his sack of toys and finish the night before the Christmas spirit meter reaches dangerously low levels.
It’s not necessarily a problem that the events of The Christmas Chronicle are predictable and by the book. Arguably that’s a feature and not a bug for Christmas movies. There are real only so many places for Christmas movies with sincere and pure intentions to go. Where great Christmas movies stand out, however, is in the details.
Producer Chris Columbus should know: he directed a perfect Christmas movie in Home Alone. Home Alone is nothing if not specific. We know exactly what the McAllister family likes to eat and drink during their holiday pizza parties. Kevin’s fears are universal (being left behind) and particular but understandable (the radiator in the basement). The only thing that The Christmas Chronicles borrows from Home Alone is that the majority of the movie is set in Chicago.
Very few elements of The Christmas Chronicles fully work. The CGI is hit or miss; while the reindeer are quite cool, Santa’s elves are furry little Nordic weirdos and in no danger of replacing Minions as your grandmother’s Facebook meme of choice; people who believe in Christmas are called “True Believers,” which is… weird; and there are some cameo choices that are truly, hilariously bizarre (and one cameo that’s utterly perfect).
And yet, Kurt Russell is in this thing. Kurt Russell as ol’ St. Nick is not just the selling point of The Christmas Chronicles…. he’s pretty much the whole shebang. His name appears before the movie’s title and after only the production logos. No matter how many times you read the words, process the concept, or even see Snake Plissken in action as Santa Claus, it never fully leaves the realm of the uncanny valley. Starlord’s dad is Santa now? Like… not even Jeff Daniels? Who laced my Christmas cookies?
As it turns out, the weird wonder the viewer experiences while watching Stuntman Mike Claus is the true appeal of the movie. Russell capital “C” commits to the role of Santa while imbuing him with his own brand of Russell-in energy, and it’s awesome. Very rarely are you not conscious of the fact that beloved actor Kurt Russell is onscreen wearing an enormous charcoal beard and saying things like, “I don’t go ho ho ho. That’s a myth. Fake news.”*
*Between Kurt Russell Claus decrying “fake news” and later bemoaning Chicago’s crime rate, there is a non-zero percent possibility that this becomes the alt-right’s preferred iteration of Santa.
That level of self-awareness from both the viewer and Russell is part of the fun. One of the general rules of life is that when Kurt Russell has fun, we all have fun. And once Russell arrives it’s as though the movie attempt to elevate itself to meet him. Director Clay Kaytis comes from the animation world and that sensibility helps Christmas Chronicles feel occasionally kinetic at proper moments. Some of the high-speed scenes aboard Santa’s sleigh are legitimately well-directed, well-edited, and exciting. They’re certainly more exciting than anything in Fantastic Beasts 2: Electric Grindelwoo.
Ultimately, The Christmas Chronicles is nowhere near good enough to appeal to the Christmas-phobic or those craving something genuiinely good. But the presence of a new kind of Sant–a disturbingly fuckable zaddy kind of Santa–might be enough to please the compulsive Christmas movie watcher.