The thing about casting Kurt Russell as Santa Claus in your Christmas movie is that it immediately establishes one thing about your particular tale: Santa is hot.
The Christmas Chronicles, directed by Clay Kaytis (The Angry Birds Movie), doesn’t totally embrace this conceit. Kaytis and screenwriter Matt Lieberman commit to making a Christmas movie (to add to Netflix’s considerable cache), but there are so many odds and ends muddying up the works that Santa being hot, the whole point of the movie’s existence, gets short shrift.
Christmas movies of this kind generally aren’t very high stakes, and The Christmas Chronicles is no exception to the rule. Though youngsters Kate (Darby Camp) and Teddy Pierce (Judah Lewis) come from a Christmas-loving family, the recent death of their firefighter dad (Oliver Hudson) has cast a bit of a pall over the holiday. Kate is still all-in on Christmas, but Teddy has lost his faith, and when the two of them are left alone on Christmas Eve with naught but an old camcorder and a harebrained scheme to prove Santa’s existence, it’s off to the races.
The Christmas Chronicles checks all the boxes. After the Pierces cause Santa to crash his sleigh, lose his reindeer and misplace his bag of gifts, they have to help him get them back to ensure that Christmas isn’t lost. There’s a race against time, as the last time Santa failed to deliver all of his gifts, we entered the Dark Ages. We get a Grinch with a heart of gold — spoiler alert: Teddy still believes in Santa — plus CGI monstrosities in the form of Santa’s elves (which are, in a word, awful). There’s even a cameo that will knock your socks off (no, really). So why is the resulting movie so tepid?
Broadly speaking, Santa isn’t exactly a character that needs to be the center of his own movie. But Hot Santa is such an inherently funny idea — and absolutely convincing with Russell at the wheel — that any time Russell isn’t front and center in this film feels like a missed opportunity. He’s styled as something of a bearded Elvis, introducing himself by saying, “Live and in person, one night only,” and later leading an entire jailhouse (populated by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, which, sure) in a rendition of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” that ends with the ladies in the next cell breathlessly waving him goodbye.
The jail detour is strange, not least because most of the film is set in Chicago, a city with a history of problems with violent crime. It’s a fact that the film only half-acknowledges in the brief interactions that Santa has with the police, as well as a run-in with a gang who attempt to abduct and rob Teddy later on in the movie.
The relative grimness of that particular material seems to be a byproduct of turning Snake Plissken into Santa Claus. Though it doesn’t dovetail at all with what’s going on with the Pierces, who are stuck in a much more saccharine movie, it’s at least interesting, as is every attempt made to explain why Santa is now, you know, hot.
Throughout the film, Russell’s Claus complains about the popular, rotund image of himself, telling the Pierce kids that he may eat a lot of cookies, but he also hits the gym in order to maintain his figure. He also refuses to, “Ho, ho, ho,” laughing instead with a demented glee that would set Oogie Boogie straight if he ever tried to kidnap this particular iteration of Saint Nick.
The idea of Hot Santa is not novel on its own — Riverdale and Crimes of Grindelwald’s take on Dumbledore are proof that the trend du jour is to take any given property and up the sex appeal. The reason that The Christmas Chronicles works to even the slightest degree is Russell’s commitment to the Hot Santa bit. He shines brighter than the polar lights-esque vortex that gets Santa’s sleigh from country to country. By the end of the film, I’d be perfectly happy to see him instated as a replacement for the popular image of ruby-cheeked old Santa.
It’s just that, as far as commitment goes, The Christmas Chronicles isn’t quite on par with its leading man. Hot Santa is a premise that requires a few risks, but this movie falls just short of making the leap. Still the film has a few interesting points to make as to the way the idea of how Christmas has changed over the years, as Santa keeps every hand-written letter that children send him, but now accepts video messages, too. It’s not completely devoid of Christmas spirit (even though the shadow of corporate greed sneaks in when a character is clearly seen watching Stranger Things), and Russell’s performance is a gift, rather than coal in your streaming stocking.