There’s no denying Kurt Russell’s credentials as cinema’s coolest Santa. Whereas Richard Attenborough gave the legend a twinkle and Tim Allen made him an everyman, Russell offers a wry, Elvis impersonating twist. It’s a bummer, then, that the film around him is so bloomin’ lame.
Critiquing The Christmas Chronicles, which is Netflix’s most notable festive feature to date, is likely a pointless endeavour. Coming from producer Chris Columbus – of Home Alone and Gremlins renown – this is a film so jovially content ticking seasonal bargain bucket boxes that it can’t help but feel like a perennial family favourite in the making. Troubled teen with young, idealistic sister? Check. Comedy elves? Check. Crash landing Santa? Check. A Christmas day in need of saving? Of course. What more could one want?
The film opens with a montage of Christmases past, charting 2006 to the present for the Pierce family via an old camcorder. It’s very twee and entirely obvious as a ploy to lead us to the early death of a significant character. Sure enough, said role model is a heavy absence in the run up to December 25th in 2018 and the looming end to a year that has seen the Pierce’s eldest – Judah Lewis’ teenager Teddy – derail and become something of a car-jacking jerk. There’s hope for him yet, though; in one poignant scene, Teddy finds himself unable to follow through on a threat to burst his younger sister Kate’s (Darby Camp) belief in Father Christmas. Writer Matt Lieberman lays such details as this on so thick that one is inclined to think ‘metaphor’ was actually typed alongside them in his script.
With the siblings’ mother Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) working nights at the local hospital, to keep her squabbling family afloat, Christmas Eve is freed up for children-only hijinks, which kick off when Kate happens to spot a mysterious arm popping up in one the family’s old home videos. If, at this stage, you find yourself questioning how it is that nobody has ever spotted this not-so-subtle event before now – or even why it is that the Pierce parents left the camera rolling in the first place – then perhaps your time watching The Christmas Chronicles is already up. Naturally, Kate jumps to the only logical conclusion and hatches a plan, with her brother’s help, to catch Santa Claus once again. At which point, Teddy declares: ‘You don’t think anyone’s ever thought of that before?’ Yes, Teddy, they have; and the result was exactly the same.
It takes almost twenty minutes for Russell to actually appear in the film and a further five on that before he properly speaks. These are timescales you’re likely to notice as they involve the slowest and least involving stretch of the film. Try as the young actors might, neither Teddy nor Kate makes for a likeable hero, with the former too contrived to believe and the latter too lacking in innocence to truly channel the eighties ingénues she’s based upon. Rather than capturing the trendy nostalgic spirit Netflix so successfully mined for ‘Stranger Things’, director Clay Kaytis leads a film that feels terribly dated and ultimately fails to charm. It doesn’t help that the film features the worst CGI reindeer since The Santa Clause 2 and irritates with the inclusion of elves best described as a hybrid of DreamWorks’ Trolls and Illumination’s Minions. Elvish, in case you were wondering, is essentially Norwegian here.
Bonus points are warranted for an entertaining jailhouse rock – which sees Disciples of Soul play inmates – and inspired final scene cameo but really Russell is the film’s only saving grace. Bitter about his misrepresentation in popular culture – ‘I don’t go ‘ho ho ho’, that’s a myth. Fake news’ – and yet still winsome and magical, Russell’s Saint Nick is a freewheeling delight. He brings warmth to lacklustre writing and very nearly convinces that this is a story worth rooting for. Regardless, it isn’t.