The Christmas Chronicles: Kurt Russell sinks his claws into Santa Claus.
The story behind The Christmas Chronicles is so simple, so glaringly obvious and filled with delight, that it’s a wonder no one thought of it until this day: a pair of siblings surreptitiously hop aboard Santa’s sleigh for the ride of a lifetime. For those who can bear repeated witness to A Miracle on 34th Street or close their eyes and run It’s A Wonderful Life on the lids, we introduce a new holiday staple.
To date, no artist in the history of cinema has fit the Santa suit quite as convincingly as Edmund Gwenn, the British character actor who took home an Oscar for his performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th St. In spite of all its altruistic salvos, the film is a love letter to crass consumerism. (Macy’s is “the store that places public service ahead of profit...and consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.”) Movie over Mr. Gwenn, there’s a new Father Christmas in town: Kurt Russell, a lean, keen, gift-giving chaldean who is on a first-name basis with the world.
The camcorder montage of Kate’s (Darby Camp) letters to Santa that opens the picture spans several years, starting in 2006. Was the family not aware of cellular technology and its ability to digitally capture and preserve posterity? They knew, but the camcorder belonged to her dad, a fireman who lost his life in the line of duty. It also afforded a fleeting glimpse of a red sleeve with dingy white trim planting a gift under the tree, making this the first found-footage Christmas movie. (It’s not hard for Santa’s suit and beard to look this grimy, what with him piloting an open-air sleigh through polluted skies.)
Since Dad died, Kate’s older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis) has fallen in with bad company: teenage car thieves who Kate just happens to catch in the act. With blackmail as her backup, Kate convinces Teddy to join in her Christmas Eve vigil to catch Claus in the act. Up on the rooftop is where our adventure begins, with a chimney-hopping Kringle distracted just long enough for the kids to stow away. Later, a startled Santa loses control of the reins, his transport crash landing in the vicinity of Chicago’s Loop. The reindeer disperse, and with his magic hat missing and his bag of toys touching down in another part of the city, Santa has no choice but to deputize his two young helpers to save Christmas.
The majority of the film’s good cheer — and there’s oodles of it — derives from Santa’s interactions with the modern world. (Initiating an AMBER alert on Santa?! Who’d have thought it?) And how many Santas have been forced to confront their legacy? No one dislikes their stomach being referred to a “bowlful of jelly” more than this Santa, so a fat suit on Russell was definitely out of the picture. (Even though they don’t call it out by name, one wonders what Coca-Cola — the company that introduced the concept of a red-suited roly-poly — thought of Santa snubbing their diabetes-inducing fizzy-water.) There’s even a jailhouse rocking musical number that allows Russell to once again channel his inner-Elvis.
Animator Clay Kaytis (The Angry Birds Movie) receives the director’s credit, but it’s Russell who gives the film its heart and soul. Credit screenwriter Matt Lieberman, the man responsible for the delightful animated reboot of The Addams Family, for plying this clever Claus with some of the shrewdest, funniest dialogue ever to pass from His Jolliness’ lips. Is there sentiment? Of course there’s sentiment; it’s a freaking Christmas movie geared for families. But never enough to push it in the direction of maudlinity. The film’s sole drawback can be traced back to producer/Gremlins scribe Chris Columbus. Better little people with pointy-ears and bell-tipped loafers than a flock of CG Stripes to do Santa’s bidding.
My original goal was to make this year’s sequel, The Christmas Chronicles 2, the lead review and work backwards. But why waste the holidays trying to drum up dozens of synonyms for awful? There’s enough entertainment in this picture to fuel ten sequels. When was the last time you fell in love with a Christmas movie? Catch the spirit. ★★★
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The Christmas Chronicles 2 — If the original dropped like a diamond in the Christmas stocking, this unavoidable sequel lands like a lump of coal. Max Lieberman, who did such a splendid job scripting the original, appears to have crumbled under the weight of Chris Columbus’ (Home Alone I & II, Mrs. Doubtfire) desire to squeeze out another Gremlins sequel, leaving the audience to wonder WWJDD? (What would Joe Dante Do?) Columbus, who produced the original, now takes director and co-screenwriter credit. Kurt Russell’s role as the coolest Claus on record is greatly diminished in favor of a derivative plot that borrows heavily from Columbus’ past glory (he wrote Gremlins) while ripping off Back to the Future in the process. As much as one loves seeing Goldie Hawn back on the screen, her kindly Mrs. C is no match for her real-life paramour’s (they spent the past 37 years in happily unmarried bliss) bravura turn as the trimmest Santa on record. The introduction of rogue elf Belsnickel (Julian Dennison) as the film’s prime source of provocation proves to be anything but provocative; the CG reindeer are endowed with more character than he. Darlene Love spinning a Christmas tune with Kurt Claus is one of the film’s few moments to remember. The rest is effects-driven formlessness not worthy of your time. Watch the original twice and bail on this. 2020 — S.M. ★
Happiest Season — Harper (Mackenzie Davis) invites Abby (Kristen Stewart) to meet her parents and two sisters, all of whom are are operating under false pretenses: Abby was assured by Harper that her potential in-laws would be accepting of their “lifestyle choice,” while the clan are firm believers that a gay daughter has no place in a perfect family. So sayeth her father Ted Caldwell (Victor Garber), a city councilman running for mayor, and his fastidiously conservative wife Tipper (Mary Steenburgen). The young couple’s love, so palpably creditable at the outset, soon becomes entrenched in a sea of predictability and contrivance before ending on a touching note. As Abby’s BFF John, Dan Levy effectively walks away with the picture. (When told that Harper’s parents believe Abby to be straight, he deadpans, “Have they never met a lesbian?”) Stewart does exceptionally well at capturing the indignity involved in pretending to be something that she’s not, simply to please a handful of frivolous, closed-minded potential in-laws. And what can be said of a film in which the otherwise hair-triggered Aubrey Plaza, co-starring as Harper’s high school sweetheart, comes off as the most grounded and responsible brick in the ensemble? 2020 — S.M. ★★★