Good lord but the spirit of Christmas is a fragile and easily-derailed thing.
Judging by the sheer exuberantly-colourful preponderance of Christmasness everywhere, you would be reasonably safe to assume that the festive season is a robust and unalterable thing.
Not so, counsel endless numbers of Christmas films, with one of the latest to join their Hallmark-augmented ranks, The Christmas Chronicles, testifying yet again to the power of humanity to inadvertently throw a great big metaphorical spanner in the works of Santa’s magically-real sleigh.
The twist with this brilliantly-well executed film from Clay Kaytis, working to a script by Matt Lieberman (who devised the story with David Guggenheim) is that rather than simply being a goofy kids wreck Christmas and have to help Santa rescue it movie – seen it before? Likely a few thousand times – it adds some real emotional resonance into the mix.
The two kids in question, Teddy Pierce (Judah Lewis) and his younger sister Kate (Darby Camp), shown initially in happily-festive home movies with their mum Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and dad Doug (Oliver Hudson), are dealing with a huge life-altering event when we meet them.
Mourning the loss of their dad, via an unseen event, they are not coping with losing the man that, with their mum, made theirs the kind of warm-and snuggly-supportive nuclear family around which life-affirming sitcoms are fashioned.
Beleaguered by her unexpected role as a single parent and despairing at Teddy’s angry tilt into a life of petty crime – she’s not aware he’s up to those kinds of shenanigans but his attitude alone suggests something is very wrong – Claire reaches Christmas dispirited at the family’s inability to recapture the zest for the festive season that had characterised them up to this point.
With the main engine behind their decorating and celebrations gone, Claire, Teddy and Kate, who remains a true believer, even at age 10, in Santa Claus to whom she records a hopeful video letter, are struggling to ignite any semblance of the Christmas spirit that infused each and every one of the home movies that Kate, understandably, can’t stop watching.
But Kate, as we find out later from Santa’s garrulously-hilarious elves who are realised with impudence vivacity and a great sense of fun, not to mention some damn fine animation, is a True Believer, and determined to catch Santa in the act after she sees a snippet of him in one of the home movies she’s escaping into in lieu of her current fractured reality, she convinces Teddy, via some blackmail, to stake out the living room and catcha Santa in his once-a-year act.
Teddy, alone in the family as a non-True Believeer – so angry is he at the loss of his dad that he is really no longer a believer in anything much anymore – grudgingly goes along with the plan, expecting his doubts about Santa’s existence to be well and truly proved right.
He is, of course, completely wrong, and what starts out as a simply videotaping stakeout, morphs really quickly, and with some snappy dialogue and nicely-calibrated performances helping it along, into one of those by-the-seat-of-your-pants tales where the fate of Christmas, and thus the happiness of the world, hangs by a magically-glowing thread.
As Christmas film premises go, it is not that radical a departure from the usual festive narrative fare; what makes it such an unmitigated joy to watch, and it is impossible to wipe the giddy smile off your face throughout its run time, is the effort that it goes to make it all mean something beyond saving Santa which we will all agree has been done, right royally to death and only occasionally with any kind of real creativity.
Key to that is the aforementioned willingness to invest the film with the kind of emotional resonance that really packs a solid punch.
Anyone who has ever lost someone will readily identify with how bereft the family is, and how despite Kate’s best efforts to ensure the memory of her dad’s merrily gung-ho approach to celebrating Christmas is kept alive, no one can quite get things back to how they were.
Or even to a close approximation of them.
They all know deep down that’s not really possible, but the ache in their hearts is almost palpable onscreen with Lewis and Camp particularly giving their grief a real sense of tangibility that fills the story that follows with more emotional substance that saving Christmas tales usually possess.
Even the story itself, while on the surface as standard as they come, sings and soars in ways you haven’t seen in quite some time.
This is driven in part by a witty, self-aware script that is as willing to give a postmodern, all-knowing wink wink nudge nudge as it is to get movingly sentimental but also by Kurt Russell’s fantastically-realised cheerfully-animated portrayal of a Santa Claus who won’t say “Ho Ho Ho!” (save for one very special time), resents the media portraying himself as a portly old man (“The billboard adds 80 pounds!”) and is as wickedly mischievous as they come while being resolutely dedicated to his role as an omniscient giver of gifts to the world’s children.
Time and again what could have been a scene we’d witnessed before in countless films – the kids and Santa trying to evade the police, the search for the lost bag of presents (which has quite the TARDIS vibe about it) or the befuddled reindeer or the incarceration of Santa in jail – is invested with Russell’s vividly-alive performance, which is affectingly-sincere while being punctuated by boisterously-delivered oneliners.
His Santa Claus is capable, wise, all-knowing and possessed of all kinds of magical abilities including the rather handy ability to morph into a rapidly-moving orange burst of energy and love of Mrs Claus (Goldie Hawn) and the elves who actually manage to come alive in a reasonably substantial way that adds both humour and a little emotional gravitas to proceedings.
The Christmas Chronicles is that rare festive film, an instant heartwarming Christmas classic that is supremely smart and clever, funny and emotionally-reverent in equal measure, possessed of both sentimentality and postmodern self-awareness in a rousingly-pleasing balance, and a dedication to the spirit of Christmas that is so pronounced and effervescently-celebrated and yet to happily down to earth, that we should be safe from wars and pestilence for quite some time to come yet. (Oh, and you will need to allow a little extra time for your annual festive must-see viewing ritual which just got crowded out by one more film.)