Like a failing Toys R Us store staring down the barrel of administration, the Christmas movie market is becoming increasingly crowded with desperate punters grappling at the last Hatchimals Mystery egg or defecating unicorn. The broader “holiday” period seems be growing year-by-year with Thanksgiving-themed movies (a visible yet still relatively opaque American tradition) making more of a dent; cynical capitalist conspiracy Black Friday continues to irk and has oozed into the consciousness of televised entertainment, and the whole of December increasingly becomes a drunken write-off. Hence, some six weeks until the big day, Netflix has already dropped its Christmas movie for 2018. Something, considering their primary method of delivering content, could easily have been held until we weren’t all still getting over Halloween.
Netflix’s effort is an intriguing beast: proudly playing on the bold casting of Kurt Russell as jolly old St Nick and inviting the inevitable Snake Plissken as Santa daydream. It’s not quite Escape from the North Pole, but Christmas Chronicles is often-riotous and broadly good fun, even if it does feel tonally like a mess and fails to avoid the usual Christmas pitfalls of saccharine and schmaltz.
The opening montage – successive family Christmas Days directed by father Oliver Hudson and captured on the camcorder – paint a picture of domestic yuletide bliss. A modest gut-punch reveals that, as we land on Christmas Eve 2018, the dad has died, leaving behind a fractured household for whom the holiday is a reminder of his absence. Tearaway son Teddy (Judah Lewis) is now stealing cars and at-the-end-of-her-tether Mum (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) works torturous night shifts at the hospital and rarely sees enough of her kids. The daughter, Kate (Darby Camp) keeps the spirit of Christmas aflame as a true believer in the magic. Scrolling through the old home videos she finds what she believes is photographic proof of the existence of Santa and ropes her brother into a scheme to catch his yearly visit on camera. They succeed, but they also succeed in wrecking Santa’s sleigh in the process, thus potentially ruining Christmas for anyone on the planet who has not yet received their presents. The disaster prompts the kids to team up with Santa to attempt to rescue Christmas before sunrise.
It’s often mawkish and too often seems to rattle around from scene to scene with little consistency of tone, but the rowdy comedy and the surprising turn from Russell just about keeps it flying. Russell’s friendly yet pragmatic meta-Santa baulks at the stereotype of the fat bloke in the red suit and there’s a neat recurring gag whereby he can instinctively recall what anyone on the planet asked for, for any given Christmas. Russell’s blustery presence is a huge bonus, the joint star of the show along with Darby Camp as the quick-witted kid who’s never not pleased as hell to be romping along with the big guy himself. Their repartee helps to paper over the weaker elements of a patchy script that involves a blisteringly odd musical number in prison, dodgy gang fights, irritating elves and lacklustre special effects.
The heavy-handed message about the power of Christmas to heal a family rift is nothing new, but it’s rides along on the strength of the against-type casting of Russell. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess powered by eight reindeer and an eighties action star clearly enjoying himself.
Dir: Clay Kaytis
Scr: Matt Lieberman
Starring: Kurt Russell, Darby Camp, Judah Lewis, Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Prd: Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, David Guggenheim, Mark Radcliffe
Music: Christophe Beck
Runtime: 103 minutes
Christmas Chronicles is on Netflix from 22nd November 2018.