Kurt Russell could’ve just cashed the check. It would’ve been so easy for him to sign on the dotted line, grumble his way through some dinky Netflix movie, and go home to Goldie. What makes the actor a consummate professional and The Christmas Chronicles significantly more watchable than the endless ocean of Hallmark-adjacent dreck filling the streaming platform’s Holiday section is that he nobly refuses to give himself that pass. It makes no difference to Russell if the prestige level isn’t quite at “Quentin Tarantino.” He still summons all the booming brio he brought to the hangman John Ruth, right down to the little mustache-flip. He commits every fiber of his being to conjuring that ineffable Yuletide magic as a newfangled Kris Kringle one long sleigh ride from your daddy’s Santa Claus.
This Santa has worked off the potbelly with a rigorous exercise regimen, and frankly, he wishes everyone would start depicting him that way. He knows the term “fake news.” He’s as loath to bellow a “ho, ho, ho!” as any celebrity stopped on the street by a fan to recite their catchphrase. And when he encounters Little Steven Van Zandt and the members of the E Street Band in a prison cell, as one does, he slaps on a pair of shades and does his damnedest Elvis impression for a rockin’ rendition of “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” For those viewers wondering where this scene has come from and why it has been included in the film, the answer is self-evidently simple: DILF Santa is as DILF Santa does.
Regrettably, he’s not the main character of this seasonal romp from Clay Kaytis, an animation veteran who’s now taken his first step away from a life of being referred to as the co-director of The Angry Birds Movie. The story belongs in earnest to the Pierce kids, apple-cheeked Kate (Darby Camp) and unruly teen Teddy (Judah Lewis). Mom’s been having a tough time since Dad died, leaving behind nothing but Chekhov’s pocketknife and home videos the audience will be forced to watch, so Kate hatches an altruistic scheme on December 24: Lie in wait for the big man, hand-deliver the letter wishing for her mother dearest to be happy, and beat a retreat. Mishap begets mishap, and before you can remember the name of those last two reindeer, she and her brother have turned stowaway on the gift delivery route.
Bookended as it is by maudlin figgy pudding, the kids’ rollicking adventure to get Santa through a particularly hairy night on the job dashes right along. After a few glasses of spiked eggnog, one might be tempted to compare the feeling of constant propulsion on a night that just won’t end to that of, say, After Hours. The film runs in some similarly scuzzy circles, too; Kaytis doesn’t always properly calibrate his after-school-special tone, as in the moment when he shows that Teddy is an at-risk youth by having the boy commit grand theft auto with his buddies. Candid comments from petty crooks passing through one scene conjure visions of parents rushing too late to clap their hands over their children’s ears.
Off-color jokes and plot detours down some seedy back alleys clash harshly with a film otherwise steadfast in its high-fructose merriment. It’s hard to conceive of a single universe that could allow for both the word “shit” and the legion of cutesy, chipmunk-faced elves inserted here because the wrong executive got ahold of the wrong report on the popularity of Minions. Rendered with CGI so janky as to be inexplicable for a production that could afford Kurt Russell, chittering in their Russo-Scandinavian pidgin language, Santa’s impish little helpers come from a more cloying movie than this one. Even when they’re threatening to forcibly castrate Teddy, the literal cartoons don’t match a mature Father Christmas with one booted heel planted in the real world.
Close inspection reveals that The Christmas Chronicles suffers from the same acute condition as one of Freddy’s or Jason’s lesser vehicles. The film doesn’t know how to get out of its own way and foreground what’s working, namely the dynamo of screen presence placed more prominently in the advertising than the feature itself. If A Christmas Prince can get a sequel, there’s no reason to assume this won’t as well, and that Russell won’t bring his same A-game. If that be the case, may DILF Santa be afforded the space to flourish so richly earned by a performance of silliness and conviction in equal measure. He puts every half-sloshed mall Santa in America to shame, so unabashed in his cool-cat jolliness that you might catch yourself believing again.