In the countless Christmas movies that run on cable on repeat every year, we’ve seen all different kinds of Santa Clauses. There’s the jovially inept Santa of The Santa Clause, and the “You’ll shoot your eye out!” mean Santa of A Christmas Story. There’s the real-or-not? wise Santa of Miracle on 34th Street, and the bad Santa of, um, you know, Bad Santa. What made Netflix’s original 2018 movie The Christmas Chronicles different is that it reimagined Santa as an action-movie badass. And not just any badass, either: Kurt freakin’ Russell, the bicep-flexing hero of Escape from New York and Tango and Cash.
Russell’s Kris Kringle in Christmas Chronicles is as lovable and omnipotent as any Father Christmas should be, but he also isn’t afraid to get into a car chase with the cops in downtown Chicago, or pilot a sled that goes so damn fast, it has wings on it like a mini airplane. So why doesn’t The Christmas Chronicles 2 have more of that? 2020’s inevitable follow-up, now streaming on Netflix, has badass Santa… singing and dancing in an airport terminal, along with disgruntled holiday travelers. It’s the equivalent of turning on Die Hard, and finding that it’s been swapped for the Bing Crosby classic White Christmas. The sequel has traded in cool for cute, and just like that, it’s become indistinguishable from every other entry in the holiday-movie glut.
Like the first outing, this film also centers around teenager Kate (Darby Camp), but instead of mourning her dead father (why does every modern Christmas movie have a dead parent?), she’s mourning that she and her family are spending the holiday at an all-inclusive Mexican resort with her mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), her mom’s new boyfriend Bob (Tyrese Gibson), and Bob’s son Jack (Jahzir Bruno). While trying to get back home to Massachusetts, Kate and stowaway Jack are kidnapped by an evil elf named Belsnickel (Deadpool 2’s Julian Dennison) who’s trying to get into the North Pole to ruin Christmas.
This shifts the action from the real world to Santa’s Village, which looks like an outlet mall in a second-tier ski-mountain community, where Santa not only makes airplanes and baby dolls, but also codes video games, calibrates Nerf guns, and — in a vignette so egregious, it must be product placement — has a whole Lego-sculpting chalet. With Kate and Jack at the antipodes, Mrs. Claus (Russell’s real-life partner Goldie Hawn) is central to the action, as is the fleet of pint-sized elves who help Santa deliver Christmas to millions of children every year.
The problems really start with the elves, CGI critters with big guts and weird hats, who speak their own language and proliferate like a bedbug infestation. They’re like the Ewoks, Scrappy-Doo, Jar Jar Binks, and the annoying trolls of both the Frozen and Trolls movies combined, as they putz about, falling all over themselves with cuteness as they go about their jobs. Once the kids are in the village, the Clauses then have to explain a complex mythology of how Christmas was created, where the elves come from, and how a magical star powers a force field around the North Pole that somehow protects Christmas.
This leads to a good 40 minutes of expository world-building that no one asked for. The great thing about Santa is that the mythology is already built in. He has the naughty and nice list, eats cookies and milk, has the eight flying reindeer, flies down the chimney, and laughs like a bowl full of jelly. We don’t need a complicated backstory like it’s the first few minutes of Transformers 19: The Quest to Buy Michael Bay a Private Island.
The ultimate problem is, even with all this explanation, there are still so many questions. The elves and the Clauses communicate in a fake Germanic elven language written specifically for the film. Except when they don’t. Sometimes Mrs. Claus addresses the elves in English, which they understand. So then why is the film bothering with Elven and subtitles, something younger viewers might have a hard time keeping up with? And why does no one explain why Belsnickle only speaks in English, and also has a New Zealand accent? If you’re going to build a world, build a world. Instead, writer Matt Lieberman (back from the first go-round) builds a lean-to in the half-abandoned wilderness.
When Christmas Chronicles 2 finally gets to the action — which is complicated by a plot so serpentine, even the Crocodile Hunter wouldn’t touch it — it’s as exciting and well-shot as the first time around. But that time the mission was as clear as it is in all Christmas movies: help Santa and save Christmas. Now, it’s totally unclear who Santa is chasing, what Kate actually needs to procure, or why they’re doing any of it.
Ostensibly, this sequel should have been a step up. Chris Columbus, the director of Home Alone and the writer of Gremlins, two of the greatest Christmas-not-Christmas movies of all time, signed on as director and co-writer. Instead of bringing the action, suspense, and humor of those movies, he’s saddled this with so much animation that you can practically see the green screens behind Russell and Hawn.
They’re a winning pair, with the kind of chemistry that only decades as one of Hollywood’s great couples could bring. But when Columbus finally gets Goldie and Kurt on screen together for the first time since Overboard, he should really deliver like a Barbie Dream House under the Christmas tree. Instead, he’s stuck with this expensive-looking contraption that no one asked for, and which will probably sit, unmolested, on a shelf for years to come.
Maybe the problems don’t all rest at Columbus’s feet, but he’s the big change between this installment and the previous one. Yes, any Christmas movie is going to have a huge heaping of cheese, which is fine and expected. The Christmas Chronicles served up the cheese along with a light, punchy good time that both kids and parents could enjoy, as we finally got to see a Santa with a whole lot of swag and even some sex appeal.
Russell’s Santa still has that swag, but it’s hard to be a badass when doing a production number in an airport, or fending off the cartoon slapstick of the animated elves. It’s cheese on top of cheese, smothered in fondue. Christmas doesn’t need to be cuter, and it certainly doesn’t need to be an extended cinematic universe. It’s sad that those things were allowed to take over a Christmas story with an action-movie gloss that was once much more entertaining, and certainly more original.
Christmas Chronicles 2 is streaming on Netflix now.