Director Clay Kaytis’ “The Christmas Chronicles” isn’t going to make audiences believe in the power of Christmas, let alone stoke the spirit of the holiday season, but boy does it exhaust itself trying. The family-friendly adventure, about two kids whose Christmas Eve mission to capture Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) leads to helping him save the holiday, plays like a love letter to producer Chris Columbus’ previous works without ever distinguishing itself. With its saccharine score, saturated cinematography, and trite platitudes, the film is formulaic and forgettable except for Russell’s performance as the lovable legend.
Christmastime used to be a season filled with warmth, laughter and love in the cozy Pierce home. But since dad Doug (Oliver Hudson) died in a tragic firefighting accident, single mom Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) has been scrambling to restore some normalcy to her fractured family. One member who is absolutely excited for Santa’s return is precocious 10-year-old Kate (Darby Camp). She gets hyped for the holidays by reminiscing over home movies and recording her “Dear Santa” letter on the family’s old camcorder. Her older rebellious teen brother Teddy (Judah Lewis), on the other hand, is not nearly as thrilled. Not only is he still grieving the loss of his father and hanging out with the wrong crowd, he’s also lost the belief that Santa exists.
The siblings’ world turns upside down once Kate unearths old video footage of an arm — possibly belonging to Saint Nick — tossing presents under their tree. She hatches a plan to get Santa on camera for online acclaim. In order to do this, she ropes Teddy into her scheme, blackmailing her brother with footage of him and his friends boosting a car. Instead of waiting for Santa to come to them, Kate and Teddy stow away on his high-tech sleigh.
Their ride-along of a lifetime quickly descends into calamity when they cause Santa to lose his concentration, his never-ending red velvet sack of presents, and the magic hat that allows him to spring from rooftop to rooftop. With his sleigh damaged, those lost items strewn about Chicago, and a ticking clock on the night’s deliveries, Santa and the kids team up to save the world from losing their Christmas spirit. Only it’s the audience who loses their spirit as the hijinks unfold.
Kaytis and screenwriter Matt Lieberman rip a page from Columbus’ playbook by setting the majority of the film in Chicago, but also by rehashing similar scenarios from “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Home Alone.” There’s even a blues-themed musical number, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” sung by Russell with backup band Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul — which is almost as lively as “Babysitter’s Blues,” courtesy of Russell’s magnetism, charisma, and innate likeability. The star makes the unfolding shenanigans tolerable, playing Santa as a kind of jovial emcee with sincerity, pathos, and gravitas.
The narrative follows a predictable path and fails to mine the “fish out of water” scenarios it sets up — like the irony of stealing a car from a car thief, or the hilarity of the kidnapping that’s misunderstood by the police. This situational absurdity may have looked good on paper, but isn’t executed with any zest or zing. Plus, we could also live without the groan-worthy and worn-out line about Santa’s famed “Ho, ho, ho” being “fake news.”
The picture’s big action set pieces are hollow computer-generated spectacles that don’t provide the characters with much-needed narrative drive. The kids’ sleigh ride, jumping through space portals at warp speed, is garishly greenscreened. Kate and Teddy’s bareback reindeer ride through the streets of Chicago and into the sky could also use a better sprinkling of Hollywood magic. Santa’s rascally team of elves provide the slapstick and pratfalls, but are clearly a sanitized version of Columbus’ rambunctious “Gremlins.” Kate’s descent into the presents portal, akin to Alice’s infamous tumble down the rabbit hole, is the lone sequence that dazzles or embodies any sense of childlike wonder.
While the visual effects let audiences down, Paul Denham Austerberry’s production design and Kimberley Zaharko’s art direction pick the proceedings back up. The sleigh’s dashboard is a mix of modern and retro automobile instrumentation. Santa’s workshop looks gorgeous, with a video screen wall that plays childrens’ requests and a towering apothecary cabinet for filing letters to the North Pole. Luis Sequeira’s costume designs of Santa’s red leather, fur-lapeled wardrobe add a modern sheen to the classic iconography, setting up a running gag in which Santa is constantly disgruntled by how the media have portrayed his look and persona.