Dir: Chris Columbus; Starring: Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Darby Camp, Jahzir Bruno, Julian Dennison, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Tyrese Gibson, Sunny Suljic. PG cert, 115 mins
When Netflix released the original Christmas Chronicles a couple of Novembers ago, they were reviving something of a faded Hollywood tradition. The corny Santa Claus film had begun to fall from favour in the late 1990s, and by the end of 2003 it felt all but unrescuable, thanks to the joint efforts of Bad Santa and Elf.
But soft: after a pause, here was an unapologetic return to the mawkish tat of Christmases past, with Kurt Russell in the famous red velvet and white fur ensemble, negotiating a trickier-than-usual delivery night with the help of two youngsters from the suburbs. The film worked because it gleefully embraced the customs of the very magic-realist-tinged pre-teen-centred festive capers to which it harked back. Importantly, large swathes of the action unfolded in Chicago, the not-obviously-cinematic American metropolis that featured centrally in the work of John Hughes. That it was produced by Chris Columbus – Hughes’s protégé, and the director of Home Alone – didn’t feel like a coincidence.
The Christmas Chronicles was a big hit for the streaming platform, so perhaps a sequel was inevitable. Columbus has taken on directing duties himself this time, as well as co-writing the script with Matt Lieberman – yet oddly, this one feels like the shoddy facsimile cobbled together by folk who never fully grasped what made the first one click. Russell returns as Father Christmas himself, as does his spouse Goldie Hawn as Mrs Claus – who made a brief pre-credits cameo appearance last time around.
This time, the pair are contending with a disgruntled former employee: an elf inventor called Belsnickel who has assumed human form, and is played by a bafflingly miscast Julian Dennison from The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. (Dennison is 18 years old, though everything about the character feels middle-aged.) An ideological cousin of John Lithgow’s BZ in Santa Claus: The Movie, Belsnickel wants to thwart his old mentor by setting up a rival toy-distribution network at the South Pole, powered by the authentic shard of Bethlehem Star that currently glows atop the tree in Santa’s Village – the theological implications of which are mind-boggling, and glossed over, perhaps for the best.
His plan to steal it involves kidnapping Kate Pierce (Darby Camp), the first film’s young heroine, who’s having a miserable time in Cancun with her widowed mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and teenage brother Teddy (Judah Lewis) – as well as Mum’s new steady boyfriend Bob (Tyrese Gibson) and his son Jack (Jahzir Bruno), a precocious-dork type who stows away on the golf cart that ends up whisking Kate to the Arctic. Seasonal escapades ensue, though not especially coherently. After bringing the two mismatched not-quite-stepsiblings together, the film bizarrely sees fit to pack them off on completely separate adventures, leaving a moral about “the importance of having family members we can depend on” feeling awkwardly beside the point.
The high point comes on Kate’s side of the story, when she and Santa make an all-too-brief time-travelling detour to the 1990s – the olden days, as far as this film’s target audience is concerned – and end up marshalling a very Ferris Bueller-like musical number in a delay-stricken airport on Christmas Eve. Otherwise, the coal-to-gift ratio is depressingly high, with a few dreary errand-based quests and some feeble business about the Minions-like computer-generated elves going berserk, Gremlins-style – Gremlins being the script that gave Columbus his big break in the early 1980s. The uninspired havoc that follows only makes you pine for some raucous, anarchic and (above all) physically-present puppetry that would have brought some slapstick rough-and-tumble to the scenes.
Russell and Hawn do their best to power through, but after almost two increasingly stilted hours of this stuff – which is far too long for a film of this type – the couple’s kindly twinkles look a little strained. Nobody wants to see Santa's domestic life reworked as The Lion in Winter, but veteran stars like these deserve a little substance to work with. As it is, there’s nothing here for them to get their Clauses into.
Available on Netflix now