Kurt Russell plays Santa Claus in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles.
What more do you need to know? Honestly, that’s the gist of this particular festive tale. There are no gimmicks. There are no hidden twists, nor are there any secret surprises. That’s the main selling point of the film, and it delivers in that particular regard. All the marketing has focused on the ’80s superstar playing the timeless Christmas character for a reason : everything else is secondary. What is the plot? Who cares? Who are the other characters? Meet them when you press play. Did we mention that KURT RUSSELL, a.k.a. Snake Plissken, is playing Ole’ Saint Nick? Do you need another reason to click the button? And it’s available at your convenience on Netflix?! You don’t even need to leave the house to watch it? You can settle into a blanket and watch it at home? Why is your finger still hovering over the thumbnail?!
Indeed, Netflix was wise to use its (limited) marketing for the film selling Kurt Russell playing the iconic Coca-Cola salesman. It totally makes sense to keep the focus squarely on him, dressed entirely in his red-and-white garnish and stroking a giant white beard. It’s an idea that’s weird enough to intrigue, yet believable enough to envision and want to seek out. And sure enough, as you would imagine, Kurt Russell is a fantastic Santa.
He embodies the timeless character with aplomb, soaking in all the delights that come with the character while recognizing that he won’t get an Oscar for this performance. It’s a good opportunity to have fun, let his belly loose and get in the holly, jolly yuletide spirit. It’s a kooky interpretation of the role that he relishes, enjoying every second here. It’s a fun role with an extremely charismatic actor giving this Netflix film great energy and good tidings galore. You can be naughty or nice to enjoy this wacky performance.
Other than that, though, it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for anything else here.
The truth of the matter is, there’s little else to recommend in The Christmas Chronicles beyond what’s available at face value. The film delivers on its initial promise. Russell is bringing the goods in his red knitted sack, and he keeps the film lively and full of fancy. But he’s not the focus of the film. Technically, he’s a glorified supporting performance alongside our young performers: Judah Lewis and Darby Camp. They play Teddy and Kate, respectively, a pair of dysfunctional siblings who find their relationship continuing to fracture — especially during the holidays, as it was their late father’s (Oliver Hudson) favorite time of the year. An unabashed do-gooder who always put others before himself, the character literally died by pulling a Jack Pearson and running into a burning building to save a family. Not even his own family. Someone else’s, mind you. That’s how good-hearted he was. He died doing the right thing. But in his absence, his children (or, at least, Teddy) have steered the wrong path by his lack of guidance.
Raised by an overworked mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), Teddy and Kate continue to find themselves at odds when they suddenly happen upon Santa Claus and his sleigh. Through a mishap involving Kate trying to film Santa Claus on her old-fashioned camera, the disjointed siblings wind up taking Santa off course and drifting him away from his destinations. Also, somehow, during this hectic sleigh crash, they also wind up several miles away from home in Chicago. Putting these misbehaving youngsters on the naughty list for life due to their ho-ho-horrendous Christmas Eve mistake, Santa takes off to try to find his begotten reindeer and fix his broken sleigh before the morning light comes. Wanting to do the right thing and take their names off the naughty list, Kate and Teddy set out to help Santa, hoping to save Christmas and … oh, why am I still yapping?
Look, let’s be honest: you’re not really watching The Christmas Chronicles for the plot. That’s not to say that the plot is unimportant; rather, it’s not what you come here to see. Netflix has formed a solid side-brand of picking up Hallmark-esque Christmas movies and putting them on their streaming service. There’s no shame in that; they are likely quick to make, easy to sell, carrying a build-and-hungry audience and they probably receive more views than their average original content that’s not, say, Stranger Things.
The Christmas Chronicles fits snuggly into that established niche on the streaming site, and Kurt Russell’s appearance happens to bring in an audience that includes curious viewers like me, who probably wouldn’t watch this film otherwise. So, it’s a win-win.
(Side Note: There is no discernable reason why this movie is called The Christmas Chronicles. There is not a single “chronicle” to be found here, let alone several. I have to assume Netflix licensed a bunch of titles with the word “Christmas” inside, and they assigned this movie with this unfitting title because they had the legal rights to do so.)
But the film’s willful insistence on being woefully generic hinders it greatly. Its spirited Santa performance isn’t enough to carry the rest of this lame, otherwise dull family feature. There’s only so much Christmas cheer Kurt Russell can bring in his limited appearance. And while there is also a fun cameo in the form of Mrs. Claus that I won’t dare spoil, I found myself struggling to keep my attention whenever Kurt Russell didn’t bring his star power charisma onto the screen. Since half of The Christmas Chronicles is ostensibly not about him and his rushed plight, you’re left watching a pair of (sorry) disinteresting kids who struggle to keep toe-to-toe with one of the most wonderfully charming actors alive, in a role that you probably never envisioned he would play — at least, not in a family film, let alone one that skips theaters altogether in the year 2018. It’s going to appeal to the undemanding, but it will leave a good few disappointed too.
In short, The Christmas Chronicles does bring some merry and delight, but only in short doses. Whenever the movie is focused on Kurt Russell’s gleeful portrayal of the holiday character — one who plays jazz, pulls toys out of his jacket at any moment’s notice, knows everyone on the planet on a first-name basis and bemoans his fuller look in ads — it is a warm, endearing joy to experience. When he is away, however, his on-screen absence is piercing cold. Beyond one moment where Santa Claus is forced to utter the phrase “fake news,” which made me shut the movie off instantly for a full 24 hours, there’s hardly a moment in The Christmas Chronicles without Saint Nick that left me without the wonders of Christmas bellowing in my heart. It’s just a shame that unlike the marketing (and, well, almost everyone who hits play on this new Netflix original), director Clay Kaytis (The Angry Birds Movie) and writer Matt Lieberman (the upcoming animated Addams Family movie) couldn’t keep the focus squarely on Santa Claus and the one-time A-list actor who plays him. But oh, what a gift Kurt Russell gets in here…