Kurt Russell was born to play Santa Claus. Maybe not your father’s Santa Claus but one who’s cooler and more subversive. It’s a bit of casting karma that may not have been all that evident before his appearance in the clever and captivating new fantasy-adventure “The Christmas Chronicles.” Russell, he of the shaggy mane and those twinkly, crinkly eyes, digs into the classic role with a sleighful of energy, humor and gusto, deftly making the character his own with guidance from Matt Lieberman’s inventive, myth-bending script. His performance is a gas.
Although Russell’s all-seeing, all-knowing St. Nick looms large, he’s here to support and inspire the film’s co-protagonists: 10-year-old optimist Kate (Darby Camp) and her surly teen brother, Teddy (an especially good Judah Lewis), bickering, suburban Boston siblings adjusting to their first Yuletide since the death of their beloved dad (Oliver Hudson), a brave firefighter and Christmas devotee.
On Christmas Eve, Kate and Teddy’s nurse mom, Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), is called into work (I know, convenient), leaving Kate and Teddy to their own devices: Kate wants to do something Christmasy with the brother she misses hanging out with; budding car thief Teddy is not interested.
Until, that is, Kate finds evidence that Santa Claus may truly exist and, before you can say “Jingle Bells,” actually proves it. Though, of course, you have to believe — in Santa and in yourself — which is one of the film’s evergreen themes.
What follows is a night on the town — or many, many towns it will turn out — as Kate and Teddy, after almost derailing Christmas, join up with Santa to surmount a host of largely magical and quite entertaining obstacles, help him deliver a planet’s worth of gifts and, y’know, save the whole dang holiday. Think “Adventures in Babysitting” but with a hopped-up sleigh and speed-demon reindeer. (Not for nothing, “Babysitting” helmer Chris Columbus is a producer here.)
Director Clay Kaytis (“The Angry Birds Movie”) keeps things moving apace as he hurtles through a string of well-executed, often visual effects-heavy set pieces. These include more than one breakneck sleigh ride, rapid-fire chimney dives, a wild car chase, Teddy’s clash with a trio of this-could-be-you crooks, an amusing face-off with Chicago cops that lands Santa behind bars, and his subsequent — and enjoyably rousing — rendition of the bluesy “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” with a first-rate assist from his cellmates: none other than Little Steven (as in Van Zandt) and the Disciples of Soul.
Meanwhile, Kate’s “Alice in Wonderland”-like tumble through Santa’s bottomless sack of presents and into a fanciful world filled with even more vibrantly wrapped gifts and Santa’s eclectic army of troll-like, CGI elves (they speak a comical, vaguely Scandinavian language called Elvish) is an imaginative, gorgeously designed standout.
The movie is certainly not without its logic gaps (Claire never calls the entire night to check on her kids? Really?). But, let’s face it, anytime Santa Claus rears his red-suited self on film, all credibility bets are off, so best to focus on the copious fun and creativity on display. Oh, and there’s a sweet cameo appearance at the end that definitely wraps things up with a bow.
Not long ago, a movie as ambitious and audience-friendly as “The Christmas Chronicles” would have been a splashy theatrical holiday release with all the festive promotional trimmings. However, it being 2018, the film is bypassing the multiplex for release via Netflix. It’s a tack, one hopes, that will help this comedy attract a wide and appreciative audience and perhaps distinguish from the rest of the watch-at-home barrage of Christmas movies. Still, for this one, the bigger your screen, the better.
‘The Christmas Chronicles’
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Streaming on Netflix Nov. 22