Chris Columbus has forgotten more about how to make satisfying family movies than most people will ever know, and nothing will ever change the fact that “Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Adventures in Babysitting” did more to shape millennial identity (or at least the BuzzFeed quizzes about it) than historians will ever formally recognize. With the chintzy but foundational first two films in the “Harry Potter” franchise, it could be argued that Columbus exerted a seismic impact on the next generation as well. We’re talking about a guy whose cultural relevance somehow managed to outlast that of the other iconic figure who shares his name, despite the fact that only one of them was responsible for “Bicentennial Man.”
And so it’s downright bizarre to see Columbus return to the director’s chair for a big holiday movie that won’t leave any footprint whatsoever; a joyless schlep up to the North Pole that seems to have been made with all the creative enthusiasm and holiday cheer of that video they make you watch in the waiting room at jury duty. Even by the decidedly sub-“Irishman” standards of Netflix’s typical yuletide content — a standard that Columbus helped to set as a producer of “The Christmas Chronicles” back in 2018 — the poorly wrapped “The Christmas Chronicles 2” feels like a last-minute gift that someone bought at a gas station on December 24. By the time a bunch of Pikmin-like elves get sloshed on spiked cocoa and start singing “Who Let the Dogs Out,” it’s clear that children will only remember Columbus’ latest out of resentment at how soulless Christmas movies have become, if they remember it at all.
Of course, cultural memory isn’t quite what it used to be. The first chapter of “The Christmas Chronicles” was famously streamed by every kid in America during its opening weekend, starting a Netflix tradition of boasting about bonkers viewing numbers without context, oversight, or clarity about what even constitutes a “view.” And yet, for all of its wild popularity, that clunky (if endearingly modest) holiday classic doesn’t seem to have penetrated the collective unconscious in a meaningful way, which is weird given that it was supposedly a success on par with other 2018 blockbusters like “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”
People might recall that Kurt Russell was a surprisingly perfect Santa Claus — revitalizing the character as an aloof, goal-oriented sweetheart who drives a sleigh that looks like a “Star Wars” speeder — but things get kinda fuzzy after that. The funniest thing about “The Christmas Chronicles 2” might be how the movie assumes that everyone remembers what happened in the first one.
Of course, this movie about the magic of believing in Christmas isn’t exactly “Bleak House,” and Columbus’ script (co-written with Matt Lieberman) is much easier to follow than it is to care about. After losing their father and spending a wild night out with Santa a couple of years ago, 12-year-old Kate Pierce and her older brother Teddy (Darby Camp and Judah Lewis, reprising their roles) have aged into a couple of pretty regular kids; Kate might be one of the few tweens who still writes letters to St. Nick, but at least she knows that he’s actually going to read them.
Her latest wish: For her widowed mom not to marry her kind new boyfriend (Tyrese Gibson, tragically not playing himself in a cameo performance that reeks of huge “reading lines off of cue cards” energy). Things come to a head on a green-screened Christmas vacation to Cancun, where Darby finds herself overwhelmed by all of the changes in her family life. Her pubescent brother is off ogling some random beach girl who doesn’t get any lines, her love-drunk mother is threatening to “replace” her dad, and the only person who’s willing to spend time with Darby is her future step-brother Jack (Jazhir Bruno), a pipsqueak whose entire personality could be described as “has allergies.” Holidays are rooted in tradition in a way that can make even the slightest adjustments feel like cataclysmic shifts, and poor Darby just isn’t dealing with it well.
So when an angsty teen played by “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” star Julian Dennison shows up and uses Darby as Santa bait, she’s all too happy to oblige. Bad news: It turns out that Dennison is actually a fallen elf called Belsnickel, and he plans on stealing the star of Bethlehem from atop the giant tree outside Santa’s workshop, thus dismantling the temporal veil that prevents time from passing in the North Pole and ending Christmas forever. (In case you were wondering what the aurora borealis really is, well, now you know.) “The Christmas Chronicles” was a grounded fairy tale that climaxed with a sing-a-long of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town!” in the drunk tank of a Lowell, MA police station; “The Christmas Chronicles 2” sucks us through a “Sliders”-esque wormhole in the first 10 minutes.
Needless to say, it’s easy to sympathize with Darby’s resistance to change.
The wheels really come off the wagon (or the reindeer are untethered from the sleigh?) once the action settles into the snow globe of the North Pole, a sprawling and festive set that manages to reflect the work of the brilliant craftspeople who built it while also emanating all the warmth and vitality of an overcrowded Christmas store. The locations, like just about everything else in this movie, confuse busy-ness for excitement, as Santa’s neighborhood is a cornucopia of clichés that doesn’t seem like it’s been there for 1,700 years so much as it seems like it’s been hastily stuccoed together from bad studio notes. When Darby walks by a movie theater that’s showing “Elf,” your greatest Christmas wish is that she’ll go inside (it’s all too easy to imagine a near future in which Netflix allows subscribers to click on the marquee and spirit themselves over to a better film).
As teased in the final moments of the first installment, the big hook of this sequel is that Goldie Hawn plays Mrs. Claus, acting against her real-life partner for the first time since “Overboard.” But Hawn doesn’t seem to share in whatever excitement that reunion is supposed to generate, as she understandably plays St. Nick’s wife with all the boredom of someone who’s been trapped in a marriage for almost two millennia. It doesn’t help that “The Christmas Chronicles 2” has no interest in using Mrs. Claus’ gilded cage to complicate its story about the natural beauty of change, as the errant glimpses into Santa’s marriage are suffocated under a blanket of Hallmark Card-worthy platitudes and Hallmark Channel-worthy CGI.
Russell still appears to be having fun in his role, at least — the actor compares playing Santa to playing King Lear in the film’s press notes, and the tender gristle of his performance suggests that he wasn’t joking — but he’s often relegated to the background in favor of Minion-like elf shenanigans and turgid speechifying about how Christmas means friendship or whatever. As in the original film, there’s exactly one moment in “The Christmas Chronicles 2” when the spirit comes to life and it feels like anyone was actually having fun on set: A big ol’ musical number, this time set in a snowbound airport terminal and featuring a major assist from the great Darlene Love.
Russell’s singing voice… well, it’s what you’d want Kurt Russell’s singing voice to sound like, and suddenly everything we’ve always loved about the actor — most of all his clownish masculine charm and refusal to take himself too seriously — snaps into focus. But rather than lean into the Busby Berkeley of it all and dare viewers to put down their phones for a second, Columbus frames the sequence with time travel malarkey and intercuts it with even more empty spectacle.
Yes, it’s important for people to celebrate the blessings they still have and learn to appreciate the ones they might find along the way, but “The Christmas Chronicles 2” — so typical of holiday fare in the streaming era — is more convincing as a reminder that we’re sometimes justified in lamenting what we’ve lost. After all, there’s nothing like a bad Christmas movie about the value of spending quality time with the people you love to make you wish that you’d just done that instead.
“The Christmas Chronicles 2” is now playing in theaters. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Wednesday, November 25.
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