The Christmas Chronicles, one of Netflix’s barrage of original Christmas flicks for 2018, is not good. Directed by Clay Kaytis of The Angry Birds Movie, it is a mostly joyless, sometimes crass, often formulaic, persistently ugly movie with nearly no redeeming qualities. Its creators seemed to have had a hard time deciding between whether it was a kids’ film or something edgier–and it has none of the charm or personality to pull off either.
What is most offensive about it, however, and ironic to boot, is its near-total lack of Christmas Spirit; offensive because a Christmas film without Christmas Spirit is a cynical, uncomfortable way to spend 90 minutes, and ironic because a lack of Christmas Spirit is actually the driving motivation for much of the film’s plot.
The story, written by a fellow named Matt Lieberman (who is apparently in the process of fucking up several other franchise favorites like Scooby and The Addams Family) focuses on three main characters: Christmas Boy, Christmas Girl, and Santa Claus.
The children live with their stressed-out mother following the death of their father who, according to home video recorded on the ancient technology of MiniDV cassettes, was a great guy. The kids are dealing with their lives without Dad in different ways: Christmas Boy, played well enough by Male Teen Actor, is stealing cars. Christmas Girl, played in ways for which I don’t think we can entirely blame the actress, is played by Female Child Actor, and is mostly just hanging around, believing in Santa.
When the children disappoint their mother by being shitty, she leaves them with one simple task while she’s out for the evening: fix up the tree and decorations like the two of you have brains in your heads and give even a little bit of a shit about my mental well-being.
Instead, the children accidentally get caught up in Santa’s sleigh as he zips around the world accumulating gross dirt on the front of him, and spend the evening learning lessons about why one oughtn’t steal cars.
Santa Claus is played by the only big-name actor who would deign to be in this picture, Kurt Russell, but even he cannot elevate this material. In fact, paradoxically, the viewer is left to chew on how his presence could fail to do so, and this creates a sort of ugly blame spiral where one starts to resent Russell and suppose that some of this is his fault.
For reasons I can no longer recall, Santa’s PDA is tallying up a dwindling amount of Christmas Spirit, and he’s got to get back to delivering presents pronto or else World War III might break out, and no, I didn’t make that up just to be a smartass. The film asserts that when Christmas Spirit gets low, people–even people who don’t celebrate Christmas, presumably–get grouchy to the point they’re willing to kill one another.
Indeed, the thing people will tell you about this film is that at one point Santa dismisses the notion of his saying “ho ho ho” as fake news. This is meant to convey to you the sort of lame, phoned-in, self-dating comedy on offer here. And people are right to share that with you because that really is about as funny as this film gets.
You see, the movie is dark. Literally–it’s ugly, taking place exclusively at night and in dimly-lit locales like a restaurant, a police station, and a local gang murder warehouse–but also figuratively, featuring prostitutes, drug addicts, and a guy who pretty confidently tries to burn a little girl to death in a convenient, giant oven, as well as have her brother taken outside to be placed in a couple different trash cans.
There are good, dark Christmas films. Bad Santa is one, and I watched it the night after watching The Christmas Chronicles to cleanse my palette. But what is needed to make such a counter-intuitive thing as a dark Christmas film work is some amount of endearing personality. Likable characters are a good place to start, or at least characters that are easy to relate to. Maybe you don’t like Willy in Bad Santa, but if you have ever been a self-hating individual, you can at least understand him. Another thing that makes a dark Christmas film work is good humor, which Bad Santa has in spades, but The Christmas Chronicles completely lacks.
Part of the trouble is that no one in Chronicles feels like a real person. Christmas Girl? Real-life children do not speak the way she does, in words or in tone. Christmas Boy? He (and she, for that matter) is awfully fucking ready to acknowledge that not only is Santa real, and not only are they going on an adventure with him, but also that it’s kind of an inconvenient way to spend the evening.
Then, there’s Santa himself. He is like a Marvel superhero whose only super-powers are to surprise people during confrontations by knowing their names and using the toys they wanted as children to try and bribe them. This is pretty standard Christmas film stuff, but Chronicles will use these two Santa tricks in scene after scene. It never gets Santa very far, but he keeps pulling it out, as if it’s a real crowd-pleaser for the audience. There’s really nothing else to his character. He’s just an impatient know-it-all who’s trying to stop the end of the world by raising the Christmas Spirit levels above the threshold of acceptability.
And that’s what I mean when I say this film has no Christmas Spirit. On the podcast in the past I have been stuck defending my position that Die Hard is not a Christmas film, and my greatest argument is that it has no Christmas Spirit. I must here echo Justice Potter Stewart (who was talking about porn) and say that while I cannot necessarily offer a satisfactory definition of what Christmas Spirit is, I know it when I see it.
If, however, I must attempt such a definition (and mustn’t I?), it would go something like this: Christmas Spirit is an attitude captured in a moment, or moments, throughout a piece of media, or in one’s life, which exemplify wholesome, moral human goodness for its own sake, often in the name of Christmas, whether implicitly or explicitly.
Christmas Spirit is the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when the townspeople who’ve turned their backs on George Bailey arrive to contribute what each of them can to saving his Savings And Loan.
It’s the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie’s father, the old hardass, surprises him–and his mother!–with the one and only gift Ralphie really wanted (consequences be damned!).
It’s when the Little Drummer Boy, just a straight-up-and-down victim of life, joins kings to stand before the baby son of God Himself and offer the one and only thing he has, humble and yet somehow better than gold, frankincense or myrrh: a sincere offering of music.
It’s when Linus reminds Charlie Brown that Christmas isn’t about plays or trees; it’s about a simple message of goodness.
It’s when the Grinch witnesses the unbreakable Who (read: human) spirit of togetherness and love that is the cause of, and not caused by, the exchange of gifts, and his heart explodes in size, and he reverses his awful plans to try and destroy the best holiday we have, embracing it and embracing love.
It’s when Ebeneezer Scrooge realizes that life is only worth living if it is truly lived and shared with others, rather than measured in coin and hoarded away to one’s self at the expense of the world around, and he showers his abused employee and that employee’s family with gifts and warm food.
Christmas Spirit is the reason Love Actually and The Holiday are perfectly decent holiday movies, even if they are not themselves good movies.
When I speak against Die Hard as a Christmas film, I do so because it has none of that. And it’s not trying to. It’s just a regular fucking action film, and that’s okay! It excels at being an action film.
The Christmas Chronicles doesn’t excel at being any kind of film. Because I cannot say it any better, even as I have masturbated my own opinion here to exhaustion, I’ll quote RogerEbert.com’s Nell Minow at length, because she hit the nail on the head in her review of this same film:
You don’t have to do much to make a Christmas movie work—just ask the lovely folks at Hallmark who start their all-Christmas movie playlist before Halloween. The themes of family, giving, music, food and joy are already there and all that needs to be added are a couple of characters who need to be reminded of how it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Some mistletoe, cookies, and reconciliation, maybe a reminder that family is more important than ambition, maybe a sentimental relic of the past, and audiences are more than happy to smile through their tears of nostalgia and warmth. But “The Christmas Chronicles” keeps getting in its own way with a patched-together story, raggedy tone, thinly imagined characters, and weak humor
Ho-ho-ho. This movie is Bad.