Kurt Russell Finds Little Holiday Cheer as Santa in Netflix’s ‘The Christmas Chronicles’
Netflix’s “The Christmas Chronicles” is surely one of the weirdest, dreariest holiday movies in the history of streaming. It takes the figure of Santa Claus and throws him into a story shot with the look of a bad DC film. There’s little actual holiday cheer, and while the reindeer are fun to look at, the story itself it not much fun to follow. Kurt Russell becomes the latest leading man to take on the beard, coat and boots of the Christmas icon, turning him into a fat-shaming persona who can conjure gifts out of his coat but not enough money for a cab.
It’s Christmas Eve and 10-year-old Kate (Darby Camp) is shooting her latest message for Santa. She’s still using the old tape recorder that used to belong to her father, a fireman who died in the line of duty. Her brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis) is going through a moody patch, sneaking out at night and hanging out with the kinds of kids who apparently steal cars. Their mother, Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) wishes the two would just get along. Then, while examining an old Christmas tape, Kate notices a hand in a red coat grabbing something on the side of the frame. Could it be? With Claire off to work, Kate bugs Teddy to do a stakeout and indeed, Santa (Russell) pops in down the chimney. The siblings give chase and sneak into Santa’s sled. But of course, when he notices the sled goes out of control, the bag with Christmas gifts is lost and the reindeer fly away and end up in Lake Shore Drive. Now Kate and Teddy need to help Santa recover the gifts, the reindeer, avoid the cops and save Christmas. You know the drill.
A lot of “The Christmas Chronicles” (what does the title even mean?) feels like a first draft that was slapped together when executives figured they needed some kind of holiday movie to stream. It seems like it wants to appeal to three groups: Parents trying to find something wholesome to distract the kids, kids conditioned to see everything in videogame terms, and someone desperately bored who would rather stream this than, say, “Black Mirror” (which has a much better Christmas special if you want to go dark). Director Clay Kaytis, who directed the somewhat better “The Angry Birds Movie,” saps all the color out of Santa Claus and tries to pump him up for this post-Marvel era. When Kate and Teddy get on the sleigh it all turns into a CGI action sequence where they nearly crash into an airplane, Kate slips out and Santa swerves the reindeer into doing a “Top Gun” nosedive to catch her. Santa himself refuses to “ho ho ho” and whines that he avoids carbs and hits the gym everyday but is still considered fat. Russell’s performance is not all gloom and doom, he does have the chops to be a jolly Santa. His best moments are when he walks into a restaurant, needing a ride and knows every patron by name and “naughty or nice” ranking.
But much of this movie feels like a lazy rush that tosses away logic. Consider the restaurant scene. Santa knows everyone’s names, can make gifts like a rare baseball card appear out of thin air, yet he can’t conjure a car or other means of transportation for himself. He apparently doesn’t carry cash for a cab either. When the reasoning behind all this is revealed by the end, it’s so cheesy and unbelievable that you wonder why the kids don’t kick him out of sheer rage at being duped. The main issue facing writer Matt Lieberman is that this story never justifies itself. Never is there a good reason presented for why this tale should even be told. It’s so thin you find yourself asking questions that wouldn’t be an issue in a better movie, like why does Santa only use his portal-opening gadget to visit western countries? Surely there are Christmas celebrants in Asia and the Middle East? Per this movie Santa Claus himself does indeed bring us our gifts every Christmas, so does Claire not do any holiday shopping? The recent animated “The Grinch” was not great, but it still made sense within the rules of its own world.
Other moments in “The Christmas Chronicles” could almost be confused with savage parody. A group of random thugs grab Teddy in the street and threaten to toss Santa’s bag of gifts into a raging furnace (where the gang leader apparently tosses his enemies). But Santa’s elves stream out to extract a terrible vengeance. They are designed like a cross between Gremlins and Smurfs. In one hilariously bad and demented moment one of the little guys tries to take a chainsaw to Teddy before Kate intervenes. “I never get to have fun,” laments the elf as he walks away, dragging the chainsaw. The best scene is probably the one where Santa, stuck in jail, magically puts together a rock band and sings some bluesy Christmas rock n’ roll. It’s the one moment where the movie finally feels like an actual holiday special.
“The Christmas Chronicles” succeeds in chronicling the folly of hastily-made holiday shtick. It’s not warm or very funny, just odd and kind of nuts. You’re better off pouring yourself some eggnog and indeed, watch “Black Mirror.”
“The Christmas Chronicles” premieres Nov. 22 on Netflix.