The holiday-themed films that barrage us before the last of the Halloween decorations have been taken down mostly take one of two forms: inoffensive, cookie-cutter treacle hell-bent on pulling on heartstrings, or overly self-aware snarkfest intent on tweaking mythologies and poking fun at the unabated earnestness of established yuletide classics. Although Clay Kaytis’s The Christmas Chronicles traffics in many of the clichés that have come to define films on both sides of this sincerity divide, it occasionally splits the difference between more traditional holiday gaiety and the darker impulses of postmodern fare in intriguing and unexpected ways.
The story here is extremely well-tread territory, following a family that’s recently lost their Christmas mojo in the wake of their holiday-loving patriarch Doug’s (Oliver Hudson) sudden death. Predictably, the rest of the Pierce clan consists of stock types: the overworked, now-single mother, Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley); the angry, bitter teenager, Teddy (Judah Lewis); and the precocious young daughter, Kate (Darby Camp), who just wants everything to go back to the way it used to be when her father was alive.
While this mushy and familiar setup makes for a rather creaky framing device, when the fully committed and particularly hirsute Kurt Russell arrives on the scene as a gruff but lovable Santa Claus, The Christmas Chronicles serves up a uniquely strange, almost-surreal blend of comedy, fantasy, and action that helps to at least mitigate some of the film’s more trite tendencies.
Upon crashing his sleigh after Teddy and Kate discover him in their house, Santa is caught in a similar predicament as Kris Kringle in The Miracle on 34th Street. As he’s forced to trek around Chicago—with the Pierce siblings in tow—searching for his missing hat and reindeer, Santa runs into an array of cranky non-believers, in the process revealing the warm-hearted interior that was initially concealed beneath his raspy voice and haggard appearance. Russell perfectly straddles the divide between roughness and tenderness, forcefully taking the baddies who prevent him (to no particular end) from delivering his presents on time, then vulnerably interacting with strangers as he grants them their most desired wishes in exchange for their aide.
The Christmas Chronicles is at its best when Russell’s Santa is completely unhinged and out of his element as he wanders about the city or, after landing in a jailhouse, magically transforming his jail cell into a concert stage so he and other inmates can perform a bluesy rendition of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” But the film’s inspired lunacy is only fleeting, giving way to treacly scenes of Santa playing the daddy surrogate to the troubled Teddy and action sequences aboard Santa’s sleigh that boast subpar CGI. In the end, the film succumbs to the tropes and emotional contrivances of the family melodrama at its core, ending up as a serviceable yet mostly forgettable addition to the already overstuffed genre of holiday-themed films.