Kurt Russell as Santa Claus!
There’s no shortage of meaningless filler on Netflix, interchangeable grist for the mill designed for little else than to occupy space between indecisive scrolls. But the streaming platform-turned-content machine provides something else, too. On occasion, it fills in the blanks of projects the major studios rarely, if ever, fund anymore.
Take Christmas Chronicles, its latest foray into holiday-themed cinema. Because of the stigma behind most Netflix-produced movies, there’s every chance it could be thrown together, pointless and a waste of time. But instead, it’s a charming, reassuring throwback to a time when Hollywood made family movies that were more than just bright, splashy colors or crummy pop culture references. Also, it features Kurt Russell as Santa Claus!
The film follows the Pierce family, a cadre of Christmas “true believers” torn asunder by the recent death of their patriarch. In the absence of their yuletide loving father, eldest son Teddy (Judah Lewis) has grown into a teenage misanthrope and amateur criminal, while his baby sister Kate (Darby Camp) is basically the mother of the house, doing all the domestic work while their mom Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) pulls all-nighters working at the hospital. Teddy and Kate, once loving siblings, are bitter rivals, having drifted apart in all too familiar fashion. Then, a fateful Christmas Eve with the two temporarily bonding over trying to catch Santa Claus on video tape bears fruit, with them stowing away in the Red Man’s sleigh before shocking old Saint Nick into a dramatically appropriate crash.
Stuck in downtown Chicago with a totaled sleigh and his other necessary MacGuffins (the reindeer, his magical hat and his bag of gifts) strewn about the countryside. The kids have to team up with Santa to get his stuff back together so he can complete his Christmas duties, because, as the film heavily implies, the unnatural destruction of Christmas Cheer can lead to wars, death and pestilence. Seriously, Kurt Russell, with a straight face, makes it sound like the last time he didn’t delivery presents properly, the literal Dark Ages happened.
It’s a credit to the film that this supposition isn’t a grown-worthy one. As cutesy and convenient as the premise is, the themes play spectacularly well. That’s for two primary reasons. First, is the strength of the opening credits sequence, playing out home video footage of the Pierces from every previous Christmas. This film’s curious obsession with Mini-DV camcorder usage aside, the juxtaposition of the domestic bliss the family maintained before the father’s death with their more realistic feeling struggle to get along stands as a precursor to the dramatic shift Santa portents will occur to the world if, for this one night, he can’t help everyone get what their heart most desires. It isn’t so much the presents themselves, but the pageantry and tradition surrounding the gift giving that the film treasures so.
Mainly, though, it’s Russell’s performance. His outsized, swaggering Saint Nick is such a joy to watch on screen, not just because of the legendary star’s Herculean charisma, but because of the nagging familiarity in how he plays the big man. Russell’s Santa, when presenting himself to non and lapsed believers, approaches interactions with a “come on, man” kind of exhaustion, like he knows deep down they know it’s really him. And he’s not angry with the people or even disappointed in their cynicism or scorn. He totally gets it, is mildly annoyed by it, but ultimately believes it’s a passing inconvenience. His Santa makes the aspirational leaps of faith necessary for the plot to function feel like hopscotch to a child.
It’s so strange that the film’s director, Clay Kaytis, also helmed The Angry Birds Movie, given this project feels like an outright rejection of that new age ilk of family film. But his animation background truly helps with the economy of storytelling and the surprisingly coherent set pieces. The only real issue with the movie is how unintentionally terrifying the all-CGI elves are. They feel more like impish little monsters than precious Christmas helpers, but their interplay with Russell is too fun to make too many complaints about them.
If Netflix is going to keep churning out a hundred new movies a month or whatever, this should surely be their first real franchise, as an annual visit from Snake Plissken Santa would be a delightful stocking stuffer for pretty much any viewer