As the director of Home Alone and the writer of Gremlins, Chris Columbus is well-versed in portraying things going entertainingly wrong at Christmas. And while he only has a producer credit on The Christmas Chronicles (Angry Birds’ Clay Kaytis directs Matt Liebermann’s script), his candy-cane-sticky fingerprints are all over this Netflix production.
The story starts with kids being left home alone on Christmas Eve (their firefighter dad is dead and their nurse mom has to pull an emergency shift), while Santa’s CG elves are fuzzy, squeaky and distinctly Mogwai-ish. But the Columbus joint this most resembles is 1987 debut Adventures In Babysitting. Both films involve kids set loose on the night-time streets of Chicago, dealing with a domino effect of little disasters and racing against time to get home. Although, to be fair, Adventures… didn’t feature flying reindeer, or Kurt Russell turning into sparkly dust and whooshing down chimneys.
Kurt Russell's Santa is a bracing blast of fresh air.
While The Christmas Chronicles doesn’t come close to rewriting the Christmas-movie rulebook — it relies heavily on pop-song references, twinkly music cues and humbuggy characters whose frosty hearts melt — it does have fun with the mythic figure at the centre of it all. No, not Jesus. The other one. Russell’s Santa is a bracing blast of fresh air, less jolly than feisty, getting annoyed when asked to go, “Ho ho ho,” and lamenting cola adverts that make him look rotund. There’s a straight-talking, blue collar edge to this Saint Nick (“I’m not an official saint… I guess it’s who you know”) who disarms everyone he encounters by knowing their names and recalling every present they ever asked for. And also, if they’ve ever been on his naughty list, their crimes. Of course, he’s kindly and warm-hearted, but you get the impression he’d kick your ass if he had to. Certainly, he’s not averse to a bit of dangerous, high-speed driving (in a bright-red Dodge Challenger, no less).
The film’s lucky to have him, and you’ll miss Russell’s Nick when a turn of events takes him off-screen for a while. Especially as the kids who mess up his 2018 present-run make for less than scintillating company. Perky ten-year-old “true believer” Katie (Camp) doesn’t really have anywhere to go as a character (apart from learning Elvish, which makes you sound like an Ewok doing a Swedish Chef impression), while her vanilla bad-boy big bro Teddy (Lewis) gets lumbered with some run-of-the-mill dead-parent angst. At times the tinselly schmaltz will make you wince, at others it even turns a bit creepy. But thanks to Russell’s roguish spin on the big, bearded house-breaker, this serves up a Christmas spirit most will be happy to glug.