Would it really be a holly, jolly Christmas without the man, the myth and the legend that is Santa Claus? Doubtful. When the holidays roll around, Santa Claus seems to permeate nearly every aspect of our lives. We find him plastered on Coke bottles, posing in malls, adorning Christmas ornaments on trees and starring in favorite holiday flicks. Though Santa’s imprint on the most wonderful time of the year can appear in all different shapes and sizes, after watching “The Christmas Chronicles,” it is abundantly clear that Kurt Russell’s (“Escape from L.A.”) embodiment of old Saint Nick is exactly what we never knew we never needed. Aiming to be a family feel-good — through its wonky mixture of animation and live-action sequences, painfully poor jokes and ridiculous predictability — Netflix’s latest Christmas flick can’t quite bring the tidings of comfort and joy that it intends to.
The Harper family used to be all about Christmas — that is until their father, Doug (Oliver Hudson, “Walk of Shame”), the leader of all things holiday cheer, passes away. Spirited preteen Kate (Darby Camp, “Big Little Lies”), her moody and angst-ridden teen brother Teddy (Judah Lewis “Demolition”) and their overworked mother Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, “Father of the Bride”) are left behind struggling to embrace Christmas without their father. On Christmas Eve, with their mother scheduled for an overnight shift at the hospital, Kate and Teddy take a break from their usual bickering and craft a scheme to catch Santa in the act on video. Though successful in meeting Santa, Kate and Teddy’s night takes a turn for the unexpected when they indirectly cause him to lose his bag of gifts and team of reindeer. The Harper kids soon find themselves thrown into a wild, magical adventure, helping the king of Christmas recover his lost items, in what proves to be a Christmas Eve they’ll never forget.
Conceptually, the notion of an overnight ride in Santa’s sleigh, a run in with reindeer and elves and a trip to the North Pole sounds like more than any eight-year-old could ever want for Christmas. That being said, when Santa is the sarcastic and rugged Russell, the reindeer look as fake as cardboard cutouts in the mall and the elves’s disposition is comparable to ewoks, the fantasy quickly turns nightmarish. Perhaps the most triggering aspect of the film is the bizarre interactions between out-of-place, animated creatures like the unbearably annoying ewok-elves and live actors. The epitome of these strange encounters is exemplified in a scene where a posse of “bad-guy” types, clad in leather, capture Teddy as he tries to secure the precious bag of gifts. All that really needs to be said about the events that follow is that a fight breaks out between the barely-foot-tall elves and the hardcore gang members. Yes, the elves win. And yes, it is painful to watch.
Fundamentally debilitating to the premise of the film is that Russell plays Santa. Russell is a sleek, updated, 21st-century Santa. Santa 2.0, if you will, orchestrates a grand, semi-risqué jazz performance in a prison (this really happens). But this modernized, snide-comment-making version of “Santa” is unrecognizable to audiences, miles from the concept of “Santa” that we all know and love. Santa is not supposed to be filled with clever quips and boyish jokes. Call it traditional, but whatever happened to the big-bellied, white-haired grandpa figure with a calm temperament and an easy smile? Maybe what makes Russell’s personification of Santa so frustrating and unbelievable is that, in acting so human, the mystery of the extraordinary man who delivers Christmas cheer each year without fail is unveiled. And we don’t like what we see.
The lure of a new Christmas movie is enticing, but this Christmas, it’s probably best to just stick with the classics. By showing us exactly what Santa isn’t, ironically, “The Christmas Chronicles” delivers the important reminder that the true beauty of Santa has nothing to do with seeing him in the flesh. Rather, it lies in the imagined idea of the mystical toy-maker with a twinkle in his eye. When face-to-face with Santa, his charm and wonder are dulled, suggesting that maybe we aren’t meant to understand his magic at all. Maybe all we have to do is be good, put cookies by the fire and believe without seeing.