Awash in the Stream: Christmas Chronicles (Netflix, 2018)

As streaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.

 

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

 

Netflix

Director: Clay Katis

Writers: Matt Lieberman & David Guggerheim

 

     The central question that Christmas Chronicles poses is this: What if Santa Claus were hot? Would the internet be into that? There’s a plot–two suburban kids rushing around Chicago to try to save Christmas–which, sure, doesn’t really have much to do with Santa Claus’ hotness, but fails to deliver anything more memorable than Kurt Russell in a Santa outfit. There’s a reason that this was dubbed “The Hot Santa movie” online when the trailer dropped, and that’s really all the film has going for it. Whatever ‘sitting in Santa’s lap’ joke you want to make about the Kurt Russell hot Santa is probably better than anything here.

     The film opens with a clip show of Christmas’s past, as the Pierce family celebrates the holiday throughout the years. The main thing here is how perfectly happy dad Doug (Oliver Hudson), mom Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) son Teddy (Judah Lewis) and young daughter Kate (Darby Camp) are. Another big takeaway is that babies born in 2007 are now old enough to stop believing Santa Claus; yes one of the main characters was born the year No Country For Old Men came out and they speak in complete sentences and have a character arc and everything. That doesn’t have anything to do with the movie, I just felt old.

     Anyway, the dad is a firefighter who has died in the line of duty, and this is the family’s first Christmas without him. The death is recent enough that whenever anybody mentions him, they stop mid-sentence, say “sorry” and stare into the middle-distance. Teddy is acting out, hanging out with a bad crowd that steal cars out of parking lots in the middle of the day. Kate still believes in Santa Claus, and films a video Christmas list on an old VHS camcorder. Claire is overwhelmed as a working single parent.

     Kate watches an old tape of their dad on a previous Christmas, and catches a glimpse of Santa Claus’s arm. She decides to set up a trap to catch footage of Santa Claus delivering presents, and blackmails Teddy into helping with a recording of him stealing a car. There’s also an odd speech about how they drifted apart–”You used to love it when I called you Teddy Bear, and I was your Katie cat” which is not at all how siblings talk to each other and frankly is rather creepy. The plan works far better than expected, and they manage to not only film Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) teleporting from chimney to chimney, but sneak into his sleigh. They startle Santa Claus after takeoff, resulting in a sleigh crash that scatters the reindeer, the sack of presents, and Santa’s magical hat across Chicago.

     From here, the film is structured as a ‘wild night in the city,’ like a Christmas themed Adventures in Babysitting. However, there is much less of a sense of place than that film–instead of exploring Chicago locales, they find magic Christmas objects in non-descript spots around the city. The kids aren’t even from Chicago–they’re from Massachussettes, the sleigh teleported to Chicago after they snuck onboard. The lack of specificity makes the film feel generic.

      As noted at the start of this review, the real star is Santa Claus. Kurt Russell as Santa Claus is a bit of a novelty, but Russell gives a actual take on the character. He’s has more of a rugged, world-weary edge than other Santas’. When he says he knows every street in the world, it sounds less like Christmas magic, and more like hard-earned knowledge from traveling every street. This works when the film leans into it, but there is also a weirdly naive edge to this Santa as well–his main idea is to just walk up strangers, say their name and describe everything they’ve ever wanted for Christmas and hope that convinces them he’s the real Santa and to help them.

      Most of the film is paint by numbers “we must save Christmas” plotting, that occasionally gets kind of weird. Santa says that without Christmas Spirit, the world may plunger into another Dark Age, which isn’t really what the Dark Age means and suggests a note from some producer worried about “stakes.”  After the sleigh crash, they walk to St. Nick’s Pub–which is actually a fancy restaurant; the name is ironic I guess–where they get chased out by patrons who think he’s crazy, and an angry bartender that doesn’t appreciate being told he’s on the Naughty List. They steal the bartenders stolen car–the valet is distracted watching Stranger Things on his laptop–and track down the reindeer, while in a car chase with police. Santa is arrested, and Kate and Teddy fly across town with the reindeer, with a orb that leads them the sack of toys.

      Santa spends most of his time in jail trying to get Officer Povenda (Martin Roach) on board with the Christmas spirit. Santa magics up all the toys Povenda had ever asked for as boy, and reveals that this year Povenda wants phone call from his ex-wife Lisa, but Povenda is unimpressed and tosses Santa in an holding cell. Santa then falls back on a classic holiday move: a blues-rock performance of “Santa is Back in Town.” The entire police station dances along and Povenda is convinced to let Santa go. Sure, okay.

      Meanwhile, Kate and Teddy find the sack of toys. Kate crawls inside, and is transported to the toy workshop at the North Pole, where she is accosted by elves. The elves are a take of the Minions, small cute creatures that speak a made up language (although Elvish sounds more Nordic-influenced than the straight up gibberish of the Minions) and get into hijinx. If this film was coming from any other studio, there would probably be elf toys on store shelves–just in time for the holidays!–or maybe even a Happy Meal tie-in. Since Netflix hasn’t really gotten into toys–barring some Stranger Things funko pops–the elves are just a last-minute deus ex-machina. They have a book of True Believers, and the elves are convinced to help her when they see her name listed. Teddy isn’t listed, even though it’s revealed that he wrote a letter to Santa asking to talk to his dead dad one more time. Writing to Santa about a dead parent was literally a joke in the BoJack Horseman Christmas Special, and even then it was a little kid.

      While Kate is in the ChristmasTardis, Teddy is kidnapped by gangsters who want to steal whatever is in the sack. The gangsters can only get coal out of the bag, so they decide to burn it in and murder Teddy. This sequence isn’t particularly intense, but the sudden escalation from ‘we have to save Christmas’ to ‘gangsters are going to shoot me in the head’ is odd. The elves rescue everybody, give Santa his magic hat back, and presents are delivered and Christmas is saved.

      This not a particularly well-made film. It is obvious that most of the budget went to Kurt Russell, with most of the leftovers going to poorly CGI’d reindeers and elves.  This is Clay Katis’s first live-action feature, a follow-up to The Angry Birds Movie (nobody drinks piss here) and the transition is rough. The story feels stitched together–Teddy is a cynic that doesn’t believe in Santa, that is writing letters to Santa to resurrect his dead father. Everything with the elves is shoehorned in, most likely as a holdover from dreams of product tie-ins. There is a weird and probably unintentional class element to who believes in Santa Claus–at St. Nicks, the hostess (Vella Lovell) immediately believes he’s the real Santa when he talks about her dreams of being a fashion designer, but the more well-off patrons dismiss him without second thought. When Santa is arrested, the cops have no patience for his claims that he’s the real Santa. But when he is placed in a holding cell, his fellow inmates instantly believe him and enthusiastically agree to be his backing band once he magics up some instruments for the big blues performance. Also, in the end, Claire seems to fully accept that Santa is leaving gifts for her kids (including a Christmas ornament that allows Teddy to see his dad’s reflection).

      My five-year old nephew loves this movie, and it is certainly not the worst film he’s been obsessed with.  But it doesn’t hold up compared to other Christmas movies, and has little to offer besides the novelty of Snake Plissken in a Santa outfit.

 

Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Washed Up Flop