The Christmas Chronicles
(SPOILERS) Tis the season to be schmaltzy. Except, perhaps not as insufferably so as you might think. The Christmas Chronicles feels very much like a John Hughes production, which is appropriate since it's produced by Chris Columbus, who was given his start as a director by Hughes. Think Uncle Buck, but instead of John Candy improving his nieces and nephew's lives, you've got Kurt Russell's Santa Claus bringing good cheer to the kids of the Pierce household. The latter are an indifferent duo, but they key here is Santa, and Russell brings the movie that all important irrepressible spark and then some.
Santa Clause: I don’t go ho-ho-ho. That's a myth.
Bizarrely, this was dreamt up by David Guggenheim (Safe House, Designated Survivor, the forthcoming Bad Boys for Life) before being scripted by Matt Lieberman (various upcoming reboots including The Addams Family, Scooby Doo and Short Circuit, so I'm guessing, if he isn't feeling creatively fulfilled, his bank balance is providing the necessary solace). Maybe it featured more torture and heavy artillery in concept form?
Although to be fair, while you couldn't remotely suggest The Christmas Chronicles is hard-hitting, and works scrupulously to prove the point during the third act, it does allow the odd icicle of cold, harsh reality to intrude, common to many a chestnut-roasting, moral-spouting Christmas classic (not that this is a future one). An opening montage of festive camcorder footage charts the period from 2006 to 2017, upon which we discover this is the Pierces' first year without dad (Oliver Hudson). He was a fireman, while mom Kimberly Williams-Paisley – I can see she's barely been out of work since, but for me there's a near direct jump between Father of the Bride and this; well okay, maybe Father of the Bride Part II – is a nurse. Could there be a more socially upstanding couple?
Teddy (Judah Lewis, young Johnny Utah in the shameful Point Break remake) is the oldest Pierce sibling, and a massive shit to little sister Kate (Darby Camp, young Patti in The Leftovers, which is more of a claim to fame, as is her role in Big Little Lies). Given how incorrigibly winsome Kate is, one might see this as entirely reasonable, but no, he is a shit, and what's more, he refuses to put up the Christmas tree and engages in car crime. What kind of terror won't put up the tree? He has it coming. Of course, he was a good lad only a year earlier, wearing the kind of Christmas sweater only a child bound for a life behind bars would. It was dad dying what done it, so while it's nice 'n' all that he rediscovers his inner nature, it's unfortunate that he had to become entirely anodyne with it.
Teddy: Don't you break into like, a billion homes a year? I mean, technically that's illegal too.
Santa Claus: Fair point.
The dynamics of their ending up in Santa’s sleigh are as unlikely as a ten-year-old still believing in the big guy, but as soon as Russell enters the scene, the picture peps up. He's an absolute blast, refusing any impetus to twinkle or offer flavourless inanities. This is clearly tailor made for Kurt, who gives it his best singing voice (he was Elvis, after all) and is more Jack Burton in drawl (although Santa isn't a doofus like Jack) than David Huddleston or Sir Dickie (and thank goodness for that). He takes exception to be illustrated as a "big fat slob" ("Yeah, well, billboards add eighty pounds, Freddie") and claims not to say "ho ho ho" until he does.
But when his sleigh crashes – it appears it can enter the Crimbo equivalent of hyperspace while flying – he inveigles the kids to help him sort out Christmas – by making it look like they've volunteered, the crafty devil reveals later – the spirit of the season factor falling incrementally as the night wears on as he gets more and more behind with not keeping up deliveries. That said, being Kurt, he doesn't seem overly alarmed at any point, even if he recalls how the Dark Ages ensued the last time Christmas came a cropper.
Santa Claus: So, who can give us a ride into the city so I can find my reindeer?
Various comedic vignettes ensue, coasting on the Russell charm. In a bar, he illustrates his precise knowledge of patrons' histories and responds in kind to the rude ones ("Hope you like coal") before making off with the bartender's stolen car (the latter, in finest tradition, does a Home Alone prat fall on slipping on some ice cubes): "Stolen by two kids and a very large man", the very large man commenting "Trading eight reindeer for 400 horses" before being caught by the fuzz.
Santa Claus: Why must they keep drawing me like that? I mean, does my butt really look that big to you?
Arresting officers Povenda (Martin Roach) and Jameson (Lamorne Morris) offer fine incredulous reactions to the genuine Christmas article, particularly the former during Santa's interrogation. He's shown the toys he wanted most as a kid (in pristine packaging, naturally) while encouraged to contact his ex. Once in lockup, Kurt makes the best of things by launching into Santa Claus is Back in Town with a makeshift band and obliging backing singers (hookers). No, there's never any danger of him pulling a Billy Bob Thornton, but this Santa is raucous enough to make watching him fun, and how true has that ever been previously of the genuine Saint Nick on screen?
Alas, there's a too lengthy spell prior to this number where it's just Teddy and Kate trying to retrieve Santa's sack – she gets lost inside while Teddy is accosted by a gang of hoodlums. Curiously, rather than stabbing him and letting him bleed out in the park, they take him back to their lair. During which, we're witness to Kate enjoying the avaricious utopia within the sack, a virtual world of sick-making Santanic excess. It's here that director Clay Kaytis (The Angry Birds) most clearly shows his animator pedigree, embarking on CGI overkill, complete with wannabe quirky funster elves. He was probably thinking Minions, but they fall completely flat and are wholly devoid of charm (that said, in a seeming homage to the Columbus-scripted Gremlins, at one point one of them does appear intent on cutting Teddy in half with a chainsaw).
Consequently, you can pretty much check out during the last twenty minutes. Pretty much. Its worth returning in time for Mrs Claus played by Mrs Russell ("So Nick, were you just a little bit naughty last night?") As for Santa's modus operandi, it appears there are limits to his abilities (no resurrecting dead parents) and he remains conspicuously silent on the world's homeless and starving – presumably only those with smartphones can send him a wish list and for the rest it's hard cheese – but I guess anything short of sentiment overdrive is a result.
The Christmas Chronicles is actually a lot more fun than it has any right to be, then; it's easy to knock off any old tat under the yuletide banner and guarantee a baseline ready and willing audience (Jingle All the Way, anyone?) There isn't exactly strong competition for best big screen Santa, on the basis of which Russell can be confident of the crown/red-and-white hat. As for why this is called The Christmas Chronicles, your guess is as good as mine. It makes it sound more like the first chapter of a dustbin-bound 1930s-set would-be fantasy franchise, rather than a relatively broad-playing contemporary comedy.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.