The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

We already reviewed The Christmas Chronicles on the podcast, but I wanted to collect some more spoilery thoughts I had on the plot and overall structure. Which means, if you haven't see the movie yet, you should hold off on reading this until you do. The Christmas Chronicles is a good holiday fantasy you're better off experiencing without knowing where it's going.

The movie opens by introducing its two main human characters, Kate and Teddy, through a montage of home movies. We also get a brief look at their parents, only one of which survives past the opening. In a refreshing change of pace, the parent still breathing is their mother (it's disturbing this is as rare a choice as it is).

Teddy and Kate's dad was a firefighter, and he died between Christmases, making this the family's first season without him. Their mom is a nurse, so she's stuck working long hours. And of course it doesn't help that her kids are at each other's throats. She just wants them to get along.

The day before Christmas, Kate follows her brother and records him and his friends stealing a car. She threatens to give the tape to their mother but doesn't go through with it. We see him pull a punch as well, when he mocks her for making a video letter for Santa. He stops just short of telling her St. Nick doesn't exist.

Their mom gets called away to work, leaving the kids home alone on Christmas Eve. After finding evidence in an old home movie, Kate bribes her brother to stay up with her and try to get a recording of Santa Claus. This works a little too well - they sneak into his sleigh and wind up stuck when he takes off. When he sees them midair, he panics, and the sleigh crashes. Along the way, the sack and Santa's hat fall out, and the reindeer take off.

The three of them are stranded in Chicago, a thousand miles from the kids' home, and Christmas will be ruined if Santa can't finish his rounds. In order to do that, the sleigh needs to be repaired, the deer need to be rounded up, and he needs the sack. With his magic, this would be a breeze, but his powers are dependent on the hat he lost.

Kate and Teddy follow along to help however they can. In Teddy's case, this involves stealing a car, an act Santa resists at first but relents due to a technicality: the car's already stolen. They find the missing reindeer, but not before the police show up. Santa buys the kids time to get away, but doing so gets him arrested.

The story splits here between the kids and Santa, who has a series of side adventures in prison in which he helps the officer who arrested him reunite with his ex-wife and leads a bunch of prisoners in a rock song using instruments he conjures (he's capable of materializing any gift he gave to someone).

Meanwhile, the kids locate the sack, Kate crawls inside, and she's teleported to the North Pole, where she meets up with the elves. Her brother and the sack, however, are grabbed by a gang who almost incinerate the sack. Teddy stops them at the risk of his own life (mirroring the act of heroism that cost his father his life), then the elves pour out and quickly deal with the situation. They bring Santa his hat, and St. Nick heads out.

But it's not over yet. Santa looks at his watch and declares it's too late: he can't possibly deliver the gifts in the time they have left. Teddy and Kate convince him to let them help, and - with their assistance - he's able to save Christmas just in time.

When he drops them off, he gives Teddy his hat, then reveals he doesn't need it to use his magic (more on this in a moment). Teddy also gets an ornament that morphs his reflection into his father, completing a character arc I admittedly glossed over.

You can see why we left the synopsis out of the podcast. It's fairly complicated and in outline form, it sounds idiotic. But here's the thing - in context, it's kind of brilliant.

A lot of this hinges on the reveal that Santa never lost his powers, and Christmas wasn't actually in danger. I suspect a lot of people will view this as a cheap gag, but I don't think that's fair. If you're paying attention, the twist is established early on - remember how I said Santa's able to conjure presents? This wasn't about saving Christmas - it was a character story about two kids coping with loss and growing up. Several choices Santa makes don't make sense otherwise. It's there if you're looking for it, both in the writing and in Russell's performance.

Speaking of which, Kurt Russell is absolutely the defining element of this movie, and there's no question he makes this better. But I want to stress this: if he weren't in this, if they'd gone with a conventional Santa Claus, this would still be a good movie, thanks to the writing and direction.

This is a good movie, because the story works. And that story isn't the generic "Christmas will be ruined if Santa can't finish his rounds" template. That's the point of revealing the holidays weren't in danger: all of that was the setting that the real story - one about two kids coping with loss and learning to trust in themselves - plays out in.

And while the kids' arcs aren't amazingly well realized (this is still a comedic fantasy adventure, not a complex drama), they're handled competently and effectively. The script sets up every payoff in advance, the characters are relateable, and the acting is solid. This is a good movie, even before we start talking about Kurt Russell.

Who. Is. Amazing.

A lot of this is casting, though I want to call attention to the fact he nails the ambiguity around Santa's supposed loss of magic wonderfully. He captures the trickster elements of the role naturally. It's easy to view him as a hip, modern St. Nick, but I'm also reminded how much Odin influenced the original Santa myths.

But the most immediate parallel that springs to mind is from the golden age of comics: his Santa reminds me a great deal of Superman teaching Jimmy Olsen lessons through elaborate ruses and tricks. Kurt Russell has the same glint in his eye and grin on his lips. Yes, he's having fun and maybe being a bit naughty (as he admits to his wife at the end), but he's helping everyone, so where's the harm?

Like we said in the podcast, this isn't a perfect movie. The effects are uneven, and there are certainly moments that come off as cheap. The worst of these was a sequence where Kate falls out of the sleigh, and the budget limitations become pretty obvious. Likewise, I'm not sold on the sequence with the magic ornament at the end. This was admittedly a tough balancing act, but I think it leaned a little too heavily towards sentiment by having Teddy actually see and hear his father (though I appreciate the restraint in limiting it to a morphed reflection and repetition of his own line).

And the elves will be divisive, CG reindeer always look fake, more practical effects at the North Pole would have been better... you know the drill. But at the end of the day, every one of these complaints is a nitpick in an astonishingly well-constructed, funny, fantasy adventure story.

Now let's get that sequel where Kurt Russell's Santa takes on the Martian Empire. Come on, Netflix: you know it's a good idea.