Full confession: I’m not a fan of most Christmas movies, whether they’re the kind Hallmark/Lifetime churn out at this time of year or if they actually make it through the studio system and into theaters. And to be clear, I have nothing again the holiday season in general, but let’s be honest: 99.9 percent of Christmas movies aren’t even trying. They’re just a checklist of tropes that go for maximum sentimentality and a minimum of everything else that makes a good film. When it first was released on Netflix two years ago, I didn’t even bother with The Christmas Chronicles, although I was admittedly very curious about it since it featured one of my all-time favorite actors, Kurt Russell, as Santa Claus. That fact just proves to me once again that Russell is up for just about anything if he’s allowed to put his stamp on it, which he certainly did in this role.
That film attempted to place all of the myths about Santa, the North Pole, his elves and his once-a-year, all-night-long, present-delivery routine under one roof and present the legends to a pair of siblings—Kate (Darby Camp) and Teddy Pierce (Judah Lewis)—who nearly ruin Christmas for the world just because they want to get a glimpse of Santa doing his gift-giving thing at their house. The film isn’t great, but Russell at least makes it tolerable with an energy and commitment to the role that is rarely seen. He took the fun seriously, and it paid off. But what I appreciated most about the first film (directed by Clay Kaytis, The Angry Birds Movie) is that there were no villains other than the time, which was ticking away.
With The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two, legendary family-film director Chris Columbus (who produced both films) moves into the helm and brings with him the scale and cheeseball factor that you might expect based on his filmography (the first two Home Alone films, Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire, Pixels, and the first two Harry Potter movies). He also serves as co-writer (with Matt Lieberman, who co-wrote the first installment), and we find Kate and Teddy spending Christmas in Cancun with their widowed mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), her new boyfriend (Tyrese Gibson), and his young son Jack (Jahzir Bruno), who seems really eager to make friends with Kate. But she’s having none of him or the fact that she’s spending her favorite holiday on a sunny, sandy beach.
We also meet a lurking figure named Belsnickel (Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Deadpool 2), who has a mysterious connection to Santa and is using Kate to get back to the North Pole in order to enact some sort of revenge. Kate is planning on running away to go home and enjoy the cold weather and snow she misses. Thanks to Belsnickel, she and Jack end up transported to the North Pole, where she is found nearly frozen by Santa, who brings her back to Santa’s Village, where we formally meet Mrs. Claus (Goldie Hawn, who cameoed at the end of the first film) to warm them up and figure out a way to get them home safely.
But before any of that can happen, Belsnickel makes his move to not only destroy Santa but make himself the central figure at Christmastime from now on—I’m not going to attempt to explain how, but weirdly, it does involve the Star of Bethlehem, which adds a religious twist to this franchise that I wasn’t expecting. Despite the fact that Columbus certainly knows his way around special effects and action scenes, I was somewhat disappointed that the filmmaker felt the need to bring an actual bad guy into the equation. There are plenty of ways to threaten to ruin Christmas without creating a revenge-driven former associate of Santa’s, like some sort of third-rate mob movie. In fact, there’s a sequence set in an airport during a blizzard, during which the Christmas spirit is almost utterly erased (saved only by a fantastic musical number featuring Darlene Love) that would have served as a far better jumping off point for a plot than some sneering dude with an unconvincing evil laugh.
I don’t like crapping on child performers, but Jahzir Bruno’s acting here is bad even for a Christmas movie, and I say that without trying to discourage him from getting better. Perhaps the thing I’ll regret saying even more, however, is that I have a really difficult time looking at Goldie Hawn these days. This isn’t a comment on age or beauty or any of that, and even though I really enjoyed her take on Mrs. Claus as a resourceful, intelligent and innovative woman, her plastic surgery-riddled face is rough on the eyes. These distracting elements do not put me even a little bit in the holiday spirit.
I’ll give the first film points for attempting something unconventional, turning Santa into something of a manly superhero who laughs at the idea that he’s portrayed as fat and screaming “Ho ho ho” all the time. But The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two is all about embracing the conventions. As a result, it chips away at what made the original work interesting, if not always original. Part Two is neither, and when you combine that with predictable and sappy, you end up with itchy tinsel right up your chimney.
The films opens today for a limited theatrical run (although not in Illinois); it begins streaming on Netflix November 25.
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