All Chris Columbus wants for Christmas is mayhem. He may not fully admit it, insulating his destructive impulses with protective layers of plastic sentiment, but from his screenplay for the first Gremlins to his direction of the first two Home Alone movies, he clearly yearns to inflict pain in between mandatory expressions of holiday cheer. (This includes the emotional sadism of Stepmom.) Merely producing the mildly slapsticky 2018 Netflix family adventure The Christmas Chronicles clearly didn’t sate his bloodlust, leading him to grab the reins of Santa’s sleigh for The Christmas Chronicles Part II as a director and co-writer, ordering a bunch of chattering CG elves to wreak havoc in the process. Brainwashing Santa’s army of helpers into a gang of violent Gremlin-like mischief-makers isn’t his sequel’s first order of business, but it’s the only change to the Christmas Chronicles formula that feels confident and full-hearted. The rest of his adjustments are simply loud.
This is not to say that the first Chronicles is the modern holiday classic of its sweaty aspirations. If anything, the mythology-heavy Christmas-special nonsense of Part II is less abashed about its fantastical premise, and less distracted by the thankless task of squaring Santa magic with real-world pathos. Two years after the events of the first film, teenager Teddy Pierce (Judah Lewis) remains steadfastly reformed by his session of Santa-immersion therapy, while his formerly innocent younger sister, Kate (Darby Camp), bristles over spending the holidays in front of a Cancun-themed green screen. She’s there in Fake Mexico at the behest of their mom, Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and Claire’s new beau, Bob (Tyrese Gibson), who expect her to bond with Bob’s scaredy-cat son, Jack (Jahzir Bruno). Worrying that she’s being pushed to forget her dead dad, Kate yearns to be kidnapped anew by her old buddy Santa (Kurt Russell). Instead, she and Jack are transported to his village in the North Pole by the machinations of Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), an embittered ex-elf who wants to steal a glowy McGuffin that makes the entire Christmas apparatus possible.
This is the plan that involves converting the Minions-esque elves into marauding pranksters. Their antics never reach Gremlins levels of inspiration, in part because the animated elves wouldn’t pass muster in a genuine animated film, never mind one that wants to blend them with live-action performers. But it’s still a welcome respite from the movie’s lengthy introduction to Santa’s village, a discount-bin Polar Express that involves Kate and Jack goggling with wonder at a bunch of chintzy store windows. In proper kid-movie fashion, they exclaim “That’s so awesome!” as a constant reminder to their young audience that they, too, should be impressed by all the visual-effects splendor, even though it’s more Percy Jackson than Harry Potter.
Setting so much of the film at the North Pole means that Goldie Hawn’s first-film appearance as Mrs. Claus has been expanded from a cute in-joke cameo to a full-fledged supporting role, though she winds up spending a lot of her screen time doting on an injured reindeer. As with her onscreen and actual partner Kurt Russell, it’s a surprising casting coup that relies entirely on natural charisma. The Christmas Chronicles movies have almost no ideas, comic or otherwise, about who these Clauses actually are, beyond somewhat younger-looking and slimmer than traditional images of Santa and his unnamed wife. It’s hard to sustain the legitimate delight of Russell playing Santa—he’s an unexpected natural!—without even the barest sense of his personality. As in the first movie, he’s allotted one amusingly overblown musical number to strut his stuff, a couple of cute mannerisms, and countless opportunities to prove that he’s a good sport. Hawn has even less, and the movie is so anti-comedic that Julian Dennison, arriving with an aggrieved-young-outcast persona honed in Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Deadpool 2, doesn’t have a single funny line.
So, cross comedy off the list. As fantasy, The Christmas Chronicles Part II has moments that work as a live-action Rankin-Bass special, albeit one that’s designed to inexplicably maximize the number of times the actors have to say “Belsnickel.” The Belsnickel character is based on a Saint Nick sidekick from German folklore, and the movie folds in other bits of old Santa lore along the way; the ridiculous world-building that weighs down so many big-budget fantasies here has some cross-cultural sprightliness.
It’s downright captivating compared to the kid-movie character arcs: Kate’s need to accept her family’s feelings and Jack’s need to face his myriad fears are addressed as easily and simplistically as possible for a story that briefly involves time travel. Russell’s Santa barely seems any more interested in this bullshit than the adults in the audience. Hell, the kids themselves forget their screenwriter-approved motivations for long stretches so they can marvel at the magic of Christmas bric-a-brac (and shill for Duracell batteries). “It looks like we’re in a giant snow globe!” one of them enthuses eventually, and it’s true. Columbus can shake it up with as much mayhem as his heart desires, but the movie always settles back down to the same static scene.