Director: Clay Kaytis
Cast: Kurt Russell, Darby Camp, Judah Lewis
Watch The Christmas Chronicles online in the UK: Netflix UK
Richard Attenborough. Billy Bob Thornton. Even Roger Moore. Our screens have given us some iconic Saint Nicks over the years, but Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles gives us a Claus we never expected: Kurt Russell. Yes, the star of Escape from New York, The Thing and Grindhouse just got a brand new sack. And from his greying hair to his roguish smile, he puts the daddy in Father Christmas.
That, in itself, is a worthy claim to fame for The Christmas Chronicles, the latest in Netflix’s ho-ho-hum line-up of festive original movies. To date, the only one to really make an impression is the knowingly bad A Christmas Prince (soon to get an equally ironic sequel, The Royal Wedding). The Christmas Chronicles, though, is good enough on its own terms – funny, imaginative, and surprisingly charming.
The plot is the stuff Netflix algorithms are made of: young Katie (Darby Camp) and her older brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis), are left home alone by their mum on Christmas Eve, but when they try to capture Santa Claus on camera, they end up along for a ride in his sleigh… which crash-lands in Chicago, leaving them all trying to get Christmas back on track before the night is out. Equal parts Bad Santa, Elf and The Santa Clause, the result is formulaic, but manages to bring enough new twists to festive traditions to keep you on your twinkle-toes.
A large part of that is Russell himself, who out-Billy Bob Thorntons Billy Bob Thornton with his gruff one-liners. “I don’t go ‘ho ho ho’. That’s a myth,” he snaps at his little helpers, before going on to complain that all the Coca-Cola ads make his butt look big. Kurt Russell as Santa is everything you could want it to be, and he’s clearly having a ball, managing to sell us a Santa who’s naughty, but in a nice way – capable of car chases and a light bit of grand theft auto, and not afraid to interrupt people eating in a restaurant to publicly recite the wrongs of those on his naughty list. He peppers the dialogue with quotes from Christmas pop songs, each reference given just enough gruff to be playful rather than cheesy – by the time he’s broken out into an impromptu music number of his own (we won’t say any more), you’ll be grinning with seasonal cheer.
If that’s all The Christmas Chronicles had to offer, that’d be fine, but the family blockbuster is better than darkly self-aware: it’s also unashamedly sincere. And that earnest quality is present right from the off, as the introduction of Kate and Teddy’s video camera not only gives us a novel, found-footage take on Santa coming down the chimney, but also delivers a moving dose of home movies that turns the titular chronicles into something far more intimate than the generically bombastic title suggests. Camp and Lewis are endearingly sweet as the true-believing innocent and her wayward, cynical sibling, a double-act that provides just the right foil for Russell’s behaviour.
Will Teddy start to believe in the magic of Christmas? Will all the children around the world still get their presents? And will Santa ever say ‘ho ho ho’? There are no stocking fillers for those who guess the answers, but there’s a gritty edge to proceedings that keeps things from turning too sentimental – our trio’s quest to find Santa’s hat, presents and sleigh is somewhat arbitrary, but still includes an encounter with criminals in a booze-filled den and a trip to jail, as well as CGI critters and a trip to the North Pole. Throw in a hilarious CGI elf with a blowtorch and you’ve got yourself the best balance of kid-friendly silliness and borderline inappropriateness since Elf.
The result is an enjoyably familiar ride through Christmas movie cliches, but the real test of a festive movie is whether it can be watched more than once: Christmas, after all, only comes once a year, but those years keep on coming. And that’s the unexpected magic of The Christmas Chronicles: it’s got enough neat gags, irresistible warmth and distilled Kurt Russell to make you want to unwrap it all over again next year. You better watch out: you might just have a new favourite Santa.
The Christmas Chronicles is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.