From the moment it was first teased, The Christmas Chronicles seemed like a weird and wonderful dream. It hooked us with the promise of silver fox Kurt Russell as sexy Santa Claus. But whatever you’re expecting from Netflix’s hot holiday movie, The Christmas Chronicles presents more, more, more, for better and for worse.
Our story centers on the Pierce family, their joyful Christmas past revealed through a montage of merry home movies. But in every holiday movie, a little tragedy must fall. So, Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s radiant mom smile is almost as big a red flag as the casual mention of doting dad being a firefighter. Cut to Christmas Eve 2018, where the recently widowed mother of two tells her rebellious teen Teddy (The Babysitter’s Judah Lewis) and precocious 10-year-old Kate (Big Little Lies’ Darby Camp) that all she wants for Christmas is for the two of them to get along! But it’s not looking good. Teddy’s grief has steered him down a path of not-so-petty crimes, and Kate is so desperate for quality time with her big bad brother that she blackmails him to get it. Basically, if he helps her stay up to catch Santa on camera, she’ll destroy the video recording she made earlier that day of Teddy and his friends stealing a car. Friends, that unexpected setup is just the tip of a very bonkers iceberg.
The Pierce siblings not only see Santa but end up crashing his sleigh, which sends his reindeer into the winds and pitches his precious sack of presents into the midst of Chicago. From there, they have to help Santa reclaim his gear and sled team before Christmas Spirit is extinguished, which would throw the world into a new Dark Age! On their quest, there will be car chases, run-ins with curious cops and hardened criminals, brief adventures with racing reindeer, furry elves, and a jail-set musical number led by a swaggering Santa and backed by his fellow cellmates, which includes Steven Van Zandt and his band, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul. But that’s not all for notable cameos. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)’s Vella Lovell pops by as a surprisingly chipper waitress; New Girl’s Lamorne Morris delights as a cop confused to learn reindeers really know how to fly. The doomed daddy is played by Russell’s stepson Oliver Hudson. And a VERY special guest swans in for the final scene in the role of Mrs. Claus. I won’t give away the surprise here. But you can probably guess who!
The Christmas Chronicles is a romp, but an unwieldy one. Skittish reindeer split up our heroic trio, and each thread is not equally exhilarating. Kate travels to the North Pole and meets Santa’s helpers, who are an irritating mash-up of the gibberish-spitting Minions, the festively dressed elves of more traditional yuletide tales, and mangy stray cats. (This leads to a head-scratching bit where one particularly ferocious elf threatens Teddy’s crotch with a child-sized yet roaring chainsaw.) Meanwhile, Teddy has a shot at redemption. Instead of going along with a no-good gang like he did with the car theft, he stands up to them to defend Santa’s present-giving bag from their pilfering paws. The elves might please kiddos with their manic energy and creepy-cuteness. And Teddy’s plot has a paranormal payoff that may have made this critic tear up. But neither compares to the unbridled delight of watching Kurt Russell as Santa Claus.
From his first appearance, this Santa rejects the popular notions of him. He is “not a big fat slob” in a tacky velvet suit. He favors a stylish red-leather trench with a tasteful fur collar. He does not say ho ho ho, and he will not suffer fools. Russell’s past as a swaggering action star lends itself beautifully to giving a new edge to this cheerful rogue, who believes a little rule-breaking—or breaking and entering—is beneficial if it’s in the name of the greater good. This Santa is an outlaw as he races through the night as a flash of red or in a stolen car. But he’s also undeniably jolly, taking joy in every person he meets on this unusual Christmas Eve.
Coming across a grown-up, he’ll giddily recount what they asked for decades before, then commend them on their accomplishments, like he’s an old family friend catching up. In most instances, this is played for laughs, like when he tries to trade a coveted Mickey Mantle rookie card for a confounded man’s car. But things turn tender when he tries to convince a side-eyeing policeman (Martin Roach) that he’s the real Santa. With a warm earnestness and slight frustration, Santa says he knows what Officer Poveda really wants this Christmas. “Lisa.” The name of the officer’s ex-wife makes his cocky smile crumble. His eyes go wet and even flash with anger, because now his secret wish is out there, raw and vulnerable. “How do YOU know who Lisa is?” he demands in a harsh whisper. And for this moment, Santa is no longer trying to prove his identity. He’s trying to help his old friends, who he knows want to reconnect (because he knows all). “Dave,” he says with a fatherly tone and an encouraging smile, “Just give her a call.”
There is plenty in The Christmas Chronicles for kids. Its protagonists are children suffering from relatable woes, grief, peer pressure, self-doubt, and that tricky time when a kid becomes a teen and wants nothing to do with their younger sibling. There are silly elves, sleigh ride shenanigans, and family-friendly action sequences! And there’s a heart-warming happy ending. But for grown-ups, there’s something more to treasure here.
Santa’s journey into Chicago brings him face-to-face with a slew of grown-ups who can’t believe their eyes or ears. Even as he shares their secret wishes and speaks to everyone with the familiarity of their first names, they regard him with suspicion. He’s a weirdo, a wacko, and maybe a child abductor! But in the police interrogation scene, Russell and Roach deliver a starkly poignant exchange that recognizes how scary it can be for a grown-up to realize their own limitations of imagination. And later, we’re shown how wonderful daring to step beyond them can be. In short, The Christmas Chronicles is a deliciously surprising and charming adventure for the whole family. But more than this, it’s a holiday movie that recognizes our cynicism—starring the sneering hero of Escape from New York—and entreats us to dare to believe. Believe in love. Believe in hope. Believe you can be not just good, but better. Because Santa believes in you.
The Christmas Chronicles is now on Netflix.