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Non-Review Review: The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles is corny, clumsy, cheesy. It is more than a bit naff, to the point that it frequently seems to run on naff.

It is not especially inventive or creative with its premise, and often seems to have opted for the easiest manner of jumping from one set piece to the next. The Christmas Chronicles is incredibly broad, to the point where it even includes a weird castration joke about a computer-generated elf wielding a chainsaw in what had been (up until that point) a completely non-lethal. The film takes a fairly standard Christmas movie premise – what if a bunch of kids have to work with Santa to save Christmas? – and goes through the motions with it.

No Claus for concern.

Truthfully, that is about enough. It isn’t just that Christmas is a time for generosity and cheer, it is that Christmas is also a time to welcome very simple and very striaghtforward entertainment designed to be consumed by families with across a broad range of ages, in varying degrees of consciousness and sobriety. There is a time and a place for the broadly-drawn hijinx that drive The Christmas Chronicles, and Christmas itself would seem to be it. It is an affectionate old-fashioned family movie throwback to a time when emotional arcs could be drawn in crayon and a handful of creative juxtapositions could sustain a film.

The Christmas Chronicles pulls it off. Just about.

Filed by letter.

Although The Christmas Chronicles is directed by Clay Kaytis, the behind-the-scenes talent featured most prominently in promotional materials in Chris Columbus. The film is produced by his 1492 Pictures and trailers quite cannily capitalise on Columbus’ iconic and beloved history as a director of children’s entertainment; Columbus is responsible for such childhood cornerstones as Home Alone, Home Alone 2: Lost in New YorkMrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The Christmas Chronicles is very consciously aspiring towards that old-school mode of family entertainment, albeit rendered with more modern technology. In some ways, Clay Kaytis seems to be a good fit for this. Kaytis has a background in animation, with his most prominent credit to date being The Angry Birds Movie. One of the most striking things about The Angry Birds Movie was how old-fashioned it felt in terms of narrative. The Angry Birds Movie was a perfectly serviceable cartoon to distract children, but it lacked the sort of sophistication that had come to define modern Pixar or even Dreamworks films.

Chris Columbus’ Cringle.

There are shades of this to The Christmas Chronicles. This is a movie that is incredibly simplistic, and very self-aware about that simplicity. Its characters are drawn very broadly, even by the standards of family entertainment. The primary child characters – Teddy and Kate – feel like they might have been ordered with a “family movie starter pack.” The two children are dealing with the still-recent departure of their father and have drifted apart. Kate is a precocious and verbose young girl, while Teddy is rebellious in the way that teenagers are allowed to be in films like this; dismissive, tempted by a dark path, but not beyond hope.

The Christmas Chronicle is very much aware of how boilerplate this set-up is, engaging with it on a level of earnestness that circles back around to seeming refreshing in this era of ironic detachment and cynical deconstruction. This is particularly obvious with Kate, who is allowed a wisdom and insight beyond her years to play the role the narrative has assigned to her. At one point, Teddy talks about going out with his friends “spreading Christmas cheer.” Kate replies, “More like Christmas beer.” At one point, blackmailing Teddy, she boasts, “I bet mom’s so sick of your crap that she turns you into the cops herself.”

Saint Nick in the Nick.

The film’s central emotional arc is ladled on rather heavily. Of course Teddy has to come to terms with the loss of his father and learn to be the big brother that his sister needs. Similarly, Kate gets to her innocence and idealism validated. This is a movie where the central arc is clearly articulated by the pair’s exhausted mother early in the film. “You know what I want this Christmas?” she admits. “I want for the two of you to get along.” It turns out that Santa Claus is working overtime this Christmas.

There is something innately charming in all of this. In particular, Darby Camp gets to offer the sort of broad delightful all-teeth-and-curls child performance that is very rare in a modern age that (justifiably and understandably) expects a lot more from its child characters. The Christmas Chronicles expects little more of its characters then to learn some very obvious lessons, become embroiled in a series of very straightforward setpieces, and to bring it home in time for Christmas. The film is so episodic in structure that Kate can even ask of her brother, “What was you favourite part?”

Jingle bell rock.

Of course, there are reasons why modern family entertainment has grown more ambitious and more substantial, but it is hard to fault The Christmas Chronicles as a holiday indulgence. The film is a little rocky and uneven in places, with certain setpieces and scenes going on a little too long, some of its attempts to add peril feeling a little forced and some of its dramatic beats not landing. However, it is very hard to hate a film that finds time to cast Kurt-Russell-as-Santa-in-JailhouseRock. (This Elvis connection is far from the only boundary that the film blurs between leading actor and character.)

A lot of what makes The Christmas Chronicles work comes down to Russell. It is at once perfect and surreal casting; while Russell has the sort of roguish charm and retro credibility that The Christmas Chronicles so sorely needs, it is hard to imagine the actor in the snow without evoking The Thing. Although the script tries to craft a version of Santa designed to capitalise on Russell’s charming antihero persona, Russell’s performance very cannily softens the edges. This version of Santa Claus is just a little more assertive than most interpretations, but any lack of emotional awareness is driven primarily by his focus on the task at hand.

Oh, Santa. You sleigh us.

While The Christmas Chronicles largely plays as a nostalgic family movie throwback in the style of The House With a Clock In Its Walls, there are a number of small and interesting nods towards modernity. While The Christmas Chronicles is consciously geared towards a younger audience, it understands that a conventional old-fashioned Santa may not cut it. While Russell’s take on Santa isn’t a reinvention on the scale of Alec Baldwin’s muscle-bound tattooed Russian hulk from Rise of the Guardians, the film does modernise him slightly. (He has very strong feelings about the ads run by a knock-off Coke company.)

More to the point, there are moments in The Christmas Chronicles where the film consciously plays Santa as something approaching the default blockbuster protagonist of the twenty-first century: the superhero. There is an early sequence in which Santa finds himself forced to pull off a daring mid-air rescue in the style of Iron Man, and another moment where he jumps out of the slay like Captain America or Iron Man might jump out of a jet. It isn’t so much an adjustment in the character’s attitude so much as his physicality, dropping presents down chimneys like he’s landing a winning touchdown.

Not the hero we deserve. But the hero we need right now. For this particular night. Once a year.

However, the script itself makes some small concession to modern blockbuster narrative norms. This is perhaps most striking in the echoes of Christopher Nolan to be found in the narrative framework of the film, even beyond the use of Chicago as the primary backdrop for Santa’s adventures. The crisis at the heart of the film is frequently presented in Nolanian terms, as an existential crisis about the metaphorical meaning of Christmas articulated through a series of rapidly escalating set pieces.

His sleigh in ruins, his plans scuppered, his sack missing, Santa is adamant that he cannot fail in his mission. “Christmas simply must endure,” he tells the children. Later on “Christmas must endure” becomes a mantra, reflecting the sombre rhetoric of the Nolan Batman films. More to the point, Christmas itself is treated as a metaphorical measure of mankind’s capacity for goodness, the holiday serving as a backdrop for some larger philosophical point. “People need Christmas to remind them of how good they can be,” Santa argues, justifying his own existence in a manner similar to how Nolan justified Batman’s.

This approach is never distracting or off-putting, but it is interesting. This approach is even reflected in some of the smaller points in the film, especially those moments that extrapolate from a small detail of the mythology around Santa outwards toward a more holistic statement about the character. When Teddy wonders how Santa was able to use some old Chinese food to rewire a car stereo as a police scanner, Santa offers by way of explanation, “I am the greatest toymaker on Earth.” It reflects the way in which Batman Begins was structured in such a way as to even justify the scallops on his gauntlets.

The Christmas Chronicles is broad, unchallenging, festive family fun. It is thrown together in a slapdash method that paradoxically adds to the charm. It is Christmas, after all.

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