Not so long ago, there were three or four new Christmas movies a year. Now it seems like there are 30 or 40, and if you’re wondering how that assembly line of holiday product gets filled, the answer is: by recycling endless variations on the same yuletide fairy-tale kitsch and we’re-all-one-big-nettlesome-Christmas-family glorified-sitcom cheer.
Take “The Christmas Chronicles 2.” Directed by Chris Columbus, with his leftover-’80s synthetic-is-the-new-real life’s-a-snow-globe touch, it’s a movie in which Santa Claus, played with winning macho bluster by Kurt Russell, has to save Christmas from the depredations of an angry fallen elf. But it’s also a family-therapy movie; a tale about the logistics of Christmas set at a North Pole that’s like a resort shopping mall filled with snow that looks like a blanket of Ivory-soap shavings; a “Raiders of the Lost Santa” sleigh-race-through-the-air action movie; and a comedy bauble that’s so snarky about the second-handedness of its holiday tropes that it somehow turns cynicism into sentimentality.
In vintage Netflix fashion, “The Christmas Chronicles 2” is an hour and 55 minutes long (the TV classics “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” were each 25 minutes; “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was 55 minutes; Will Ferrell’s “Elf” was 97 minutes), which makes it way too much of a mediocre thing, like a dozen stocking stuffers stuffed into one movie. Yet by the time the characters lapse into a wistful chorus of “O Christmas Tree,” only the Scrooges among us will fail to wipe away a Pavlovian Christmas tear. For this week’s Christmas-movie product, “The Christmas Chronicles 2” does its job.
Russell’s Santa, looking like one of those early-20th-century paintings of a laughing Father Christmas, holds down the center of things, and this time Mrs. Claus is more than an offscreen presence. She’s played by Goldie Hawn at her rosiest, and she and Russell, reunited onscreen for the first time since “Overboard” (1987), make the most of their aging-like-fine-wine romantic glow. But the main character, as in the first “The Christmas Chronicles” (2018), is the precocious, saddened, ringlet-haired Kate (Darby Camp), who is still grappling with the death of her firefighter dad. Spending Christmas in Cancun with her mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and her mom’s new beau (Tyrese Gibson), Kate and his son, Jack (Jahzir Bruno), get spun through a wormhole to the North Pole, where Santa, once again, could use her help.
Not that he’s exactly lacking in assistance. Santa’s elves are a vast crew of CGI homunculi who babble in a grunting foreign tongue like the Minions. “The village houses over a million elves,” says Santa with jaunty pride. “If you combined Amazon, FedEx, the postal service, and UPS with every manufacturing company in the world, and they quadrupled their output for an entire year, you just might be getting close to what we can accomplish here in Santa’s village…in a single day.” Spoken like the market-minded Santa of a Netflix film! (It’s amazing he didn’t list the elves’ stock-option plan.)
But here’s the rub. Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), the former elf protégé of Santa, feeling rejected (he’s now a long-haired young adult with a Christmas chip on his shoulder), wants to take over for Santa. He steals the village’s Christmas-tree star, which is infused with holy light from the Star of Bethlehem (though it looks like a mod crystal lamp you’d see at Target), and then sets about trying to destroy his jolly red-suited rival. Julian Dennison, the kid from “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is a good young actor who does pouty arrogance almost too well.
Belsnickel sends Santa, Kate, and Jack on a sleigh ride into the past, stranding them at Logan Airport in Boston in 1990, where the Christmas spirit is so low that Santa’s reindeer — who fly based on how much Christmas spirit there is around them — can’t take off. This sequence is by far the best in the film, because it’s got a taste of the real world: the travelers in a funk because their flights get canceled, a clever sequence in which Kate has to shoplift triple-A batteries because her 2020 currency looks counterfeit, and even an insanely incongruous gospel musical number that’s staged like something out of “Footloose for the Holidays.” The movie, for a brief spell, comes alive. (Kate also meets a 13-year-old kid who turns out to be…a meaningful person.)
But then it’s back to the plastic mall snow kingdom. The rest of “The Christmas Chronicles 2” plays like a half-hearted “National Treasure” opus laced with family healing. For more and more viewers, though, that’s a what’s-not-to-like? movie. At a harmless piece of hokum like this one, you giggle and grin a few times, you see the ruptures healed by Christmas, and you get to hang out with a Santa who’s traditional but nearly cool. When Christmas movies cease to be special (when they’re all scooped out of the same river of nonstop product), there’s something almost reassuring about a Christmas movie that lifts you up by knowingly dumbing Christmas down.