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Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles introduces a Santa who can get it

Kurt Russell stars as the jolly old elf in this entertainingly vapid new Christmas movie.

The Christmas Chronicles
Santa tells Kate and Teddy that he’s never had human helpers before, and they just go with it, like they haven’t seen Ernest Saves Christmas.
Michael Gibson/Netflix
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Beginning in the ’90s but flowering in the ’00s, the masculine Jesus movement was an attempt by the American church to deal with a troubling fact: Attendance by men was trending downward.

This trend was blamed on a number of things — football, for instance — but proponents of masculine Jesus thought that, perhaps, men were turned away by the church’s focus on the whole “Prince of Peace” thing. Weren’t there also a lot of verses where Jesus was, like, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”?

And what if, instead of “sword” meaning “the conflict that can erupt in groups of people when one person is committed to a course of action they’ve deemed the moral one,” it meant a literal sword? Like maybe a broadsword? And Jesus is super buff? Could we put that on a T-shirt? Could we monetize that?

The masculine Jesus movement was really successful for a time, but it was also always a little ridiculous to so over-emphasize the more masculine aspects of the Biblical Jesus’s character that he ended up seeming a little like a cast member of The Expendables. Even if you think it’s tanking your church attendance, saying things like “Blessed are the meek” is pretty core to Jesus’s whole message.

Anyway, the masculine Jesus was all I could think about when watching The Christmas Chronicles, a new Netflix movie in which Kurt Russell plays a Santa Claus who works out obsessively, hates it when people assume he’s fat, relishes a chance to drive a fast car, and does a reasonable impression of a blues singer. When he laughs, there’s a touch of menace to it. This is a Santa who, in the parlance of the times, can get it.

Forgive me, dear reader, but this is a Santa who fucks.

Really, the rest of this review should just be a list of things that happen in this movie. It. Is. Bonkers.

The Christmas Chronicles
Dash away, dash away, dash away, all!
Michael Gibson/Netflix

The only thing you need to know about The Christmas Chronicles is that it is wild. So much random stuff happens in this one movie, even though it’s only 98 minutes long (sans closing credits). One scene, for example, involves computer-generated elves who speak a vaguely Scandinavian dialect dubbed “elvish” attempting to help Santa break out of jail while he performs Elvis’s “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” with the non-Bruce Springsteen members of The E-Street Band.

Broadly speaking, The Christmas Chronicles belongs to the subgenre of Christmas tales that purport to “explain” how Santa accomplishes all his crazy tricks. Except The Christmas Chronicles pretty much shrugs 20 minutes in and says, “Hey, it’s just portal magic, buddy!” and that’s that. Then the movie settles in for a long stretch set in Chicago — where it was evidently filmed — in which all of Santa’s magical items (his sack, his reindeer, his hat, etc.) have been scattered across the city and he has to go retrieve them all. It’s like the checklist at the end of Where’s Waldo? when the book taunted you with, “Did you notice Waldo’s been losing his things this whole time? Can you go back and find those?”

Ostensibly, the central story is about two kids surviving their first Christmas without their dad, who recently died. Tween Kate (Darby Camp) is the precocious ideal of an annoying little sister, obsessively filming things on her dad’s old video camera, in order to feel closer to him, but really so The Christmas Chronicles’ filmmakers can shoot certain scenes to look as if they were captured by a 20-year-old camcorder.

And Kate’s older brother, teenager Teddy (Judah Lewis), is falling into generic juvenile delinquency, which The Christmas Chronicles illustrates not by having him smoke or vandalize something but by having him steal cars. (Amusingly, Santa disapproves until Teddy talks the big red man into stealing a car himself, after he loses access to his sleigh.)

The two have a harried mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, deserving better), a house that’s barely decorated (since their dad used to handle that), and nothing better to do on Christmas Eve than set up an elaborate system to try to catch sight of Santa on camera.

Because nobody’s ever tried that before!

Kate and Teddy succeed in their mission, capturing rudimentary footage of Santa, so their next move is obviously to infiltrate his sleigh — which leads to them being whisked off into the night, which leads to them startling Santa, which leads to all of his things being accidentally scattered across the Chicagoland area.

As the three of them embark on the quest for Santa’s stuff, The Christmas Chronicles makes a half-hearted stab at transforming itself into a found-footage movie, thanks to the presence of Kate’s camcorder. Alas, it sort of forgets this idea halfway through — but not before a bunch of angry elves swarm the camera in a surprisingly horrifying sequence, and The Christmas Chronicles briefly becomes a found-footage horror movie about Santa, which is a capital idea.

Both Camp and Lewis succeed in feeling more or less like real kids, which is all they really need to do. Their big emotional moments fall flat, but it would be hard for them to connect when Russell is having such a great time cavorting about the screen as Santa, never once caring how ridiculous he looks. Has the guy always wanted to play Santa? Because he’s surprisingly great at it. Maybe he should tackle the Easter Bunny next.

The film’s director, Clay Kaytis (formerly of the misbegotten Angry Birds movie), keeps things moving, never quite winking at the audience to acknowledge that, yes, this is a very silly movie, but always nudging us under the table to let us know that he knows, but, like, just go with it? For the kids? He seems especially delighted by the idea of a hyper-masculine Santa who’s a little tender about everybody assuming he’s a big fat pushover.

Matt Lieberman’s script, meanwhile, raises more questions than it answers. To wit:

  • If Santa can pull basically any item out of his coat and present it as a gift, why doesn’t he just pull out the key he needs to break out of jail? Or can Santa only give to those he’s talking to, never receiving presents himself? Can Santa practice self-care? Is pulling gifts out of his coat Santa’s version of self-care?
  • If Santa’s sleigh automatically carries him to major metropolitan areas after he presses big buttons labeled with their names, how does he service outlying exurban and rural areas? Is Santa the reason for the economic decline of rural areas?
  • Did Santa’s inability to deliver gifts on a couple of Christmases seriously cause the Dark Ages, as The Christmas Chronicles briefly suggests?

And so on. I’m snarking, of course, but I suspect Lieberman would approve, because his script is so fond of introducing big, goofy ideas, then watching them float off into the sky, wishing Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

The Christmas Chronicles defies simple qualitative judgments. Like many of Netflix’s original movies, it is designed more than it’s made, crafted to fill a very specific niche. It seems to be the result of a Netflix exec looking at the network’s library and realizing more Christmas movies were needed — but it almost reminded me of the movies of Roger Corman, the beloved low-budget producer of schlock, who would hand promising directors a certain amount of money and a rough premise, then let them go nuts.

The Christmas Chronicles isn’t really good, but it is ridiculous. Sometimes that’s enough.

The Christmas Chronicles is streaming on Netflix.

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