The Christmas Chronicles
The Christmas Chronicles is an uneven, but strangely satisfying holiday treat. Getting the most out of an exceptional turn from Kurt Russell as jolly old St. Nick and a script that balances Christmas movie conventions with a handful of ambitiously bizarre touches, The Christmas Chronicles is kind of a mess, but it’s never boring. It’s not always likable, but it’s always entertaining and frequently funny. It’s caught somewhere between being a Hallmark movie and the strangest film in the “one crazy and dangerous night” sub-genre that you’ve ever seen. I’m not sure The Christmas Chronicles even works as a complete film, but I don’t regret watching it for a single second.
The Christmas Chronicles tells the story of Kate and Teddy Pierce (Darby Camp and Judah Lewis), a brother and sister who are about to celebrate the first holiday season following the death of their father. Kate, a ten year old who still believes in Santa Claus, is coping with the tragedy by revelining in the nostalgia provided by old home movies of their family, captured during happy Christmases of yore. High schooler Teddy, on the other hand, has become a bullying juvenile delinquent, spending most of his days drinking beers and stealing cars with his ne’er-do-well buddies. The Christmas Chronicles gets off on the absolute wrong foot by making the relationship between the siblings so harsh that no amount of holiday cheer could seemingly rectify Teddy’s abhorrent behaviour. Not even ten minutes into the movie, Teddy is assaulting his sister so brutally that it doesn’t even look like siblings fighting. The fact that the film can overcome this is a testament to the ingenuity, weirdness, and well honed use of cliches that will follow.
As with most parental figures in such movies, their mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) works as a nurse, and she gets called in to work on Christmas Eve. Teddy is forced into babysitting Kate for the evening instead of going out and drunkenly committing grand theft auto, so naturally he’s pretty sullen about it. On one of the home movies Kate watches, she catches a glimpse of Santa (Russell) putting gifts under the family’s tree. Intrigued by what his sister found, but not exactly believing it, Teddy agrees to stay up all night with Kate to try and catch a glimpse of the mythical holiday legend. Although they just miss capturing a look at Santa in their own home, they find his reindeer and sleigh just outside the house and accidentally stow away in it when he returns on his journey. The siblings spook Santa, causing his flying craft to go into a tailspin somewhere over Chicago, losing his reindeer, bag of toys, and magical hat in the process. Understandably upset that Kate and Teddy have pretty much ruined Christmas for everyone, Santa (who isn’t fat and not always jolly) eventually agrees to let the siblings help him set things right and keep the spirit of the season alive.
The live action feature debut for director and animator Clay Katis (The Angry Birds Movie) and the first screenplay produced by writer Matt Lieberman, The Christmas Chronicles is a lot to take in. It’s a film that throws so many dissimilar ideas, notions, theories, tones, and gags at the audience that it’s almost impossible to process them all in real time. In a more serious piece of art or cinema, such an approach would be a kiss of death. For something like The Christmas Chronicles, it’s positively invigorating. It belongs to the same curious category of seasonal film as Scrooged or One Magic Christmas: movies that seem to love and hate the holiday with equal aplomb, but secretly have hope that the goodness of humanity will shine through the darkness.
And things do get dark in The Christmas Chronicles, sometimes for comedic effect and in sometimes shocking ways. Teddy steals a Dodge Charger and proceeds to help Santa outrun the cops on a lengthy chase through the streets of Chicago (which are clearly Toronto). Teddy gets mugged by a bunch of violent thugs once he finds Santa’s bag of toys. Santa goes to jail and insinuates to the arresting officers that he’s basically the only thing that keeps the world from descending into a violent rage. Santa’s ability to know everything about a person before he talks to them sometimes makes him sound like a stalker or serial killer. A tiny CGI elf threatens a character with castration via a miniature chainsaw. These unorthodox and borderline distasteful touches are always at odds with a film that claims to be about overcoming grief and rekindling the holiday spirit, but they’re also rather captivating and genuinely amusing. The Christmas Chronicles is never so misanthropic that these darker beats will ever turn viewers off, and generally the good natured whimsy of the whole thing wins the day, even though the overall messages of how the holiday can’t exist without Santa and presents and that lack of seasonal cheer is sending American down a dark path are dubious and decidedly problematic.
Camp and Lewis are fine as the young leads, but the film belongs lock, stock, and barrel to Russell and his portrayal of the coolest and most macho Santa ever committed to film. Playing Kris Kringle in the same cocksure way he portrayed Big Trouble in Little China’s Jack Burton, Russell swaggers through The Christmas Chronicles with effortless cool and charisma. Russell’s Santa is slightly cantankerous and not below resorting to emotional manipulation in a big to keep Christmas on schedule, but he also feels like a true action movie hero. Even if the rest of the film is packed with mismatched dramatic and comedic beats, Russell maintains the sense of consistency that The Christmas Chronicles needs to succeed. And he does it all with a perfectly straight face, whether he’s speaking to his diminutive helpers in Icelandic sounding Elvish or staging a totally out-of-left-field jailhouse musical number that looks straight out of The Blues Brothers. He’s having an absolute blast, and the film roars to life in his presence, even when the material is somewhat dodgy.
Katis has the unenviable task of trying to contain the inherent mayhem of The Christmas Chronicles, and he does a fine job on what looks to have been a modest budget or under rushed conditions. Early moments of Santa and the kids soaring through the evening skies feature gorgeous and painterly backgrounds and foregrounds, but they still look like unconvincing green screen effects. Santa’s reindeer are thoroughly uninspired and cheap looking, but his more cartoonish looking army of elves are enjoyable additions. Much like the script, Katis’ direction never settles on a tone, but that’s not entirely his fault. That’s just how the material asks to be staged. It’s amazing anyone could make The Christmas Chronicles work, but Katis pulls it off better than expected.
It’s a smart move for Netflix to release The Christmas Chronicles on American Thanksgiving because it’s probably best viewed by kiddies on full stomachs and by adults who’re likely wine or gravy drunk. It’s intoxicating enough trying to watch it sober, but the flaws are pretty apparent throughout. If you’re overstuffed and slightly tipsy on your couch at home, it’s a probably a pretty wild ride.
The Christmas Chronicles is available to stream on Netflix starting on Thursday, November 22, 2018.
Check out the trailer for The Christmas Chronicles: