Netflixing: The Christmas Chronicles

Dec 27, 2018 | Netflixing, TV, Writing

Can we get one thing straight first?

Listen, people: slapping the word “Chronicles” on something does not somehow turn it into a fantasy epic.

I’m looking at you, Vin Diesel:

Because the word “Chronicles” has a definite meaning. It’s a formal term for a diary or historical record. It has nothing to do with fantasy or swashbuckling action or epic space battles. In fact, it means the opposite: a chronicle is a record of day-to-day occurrences. And most of those are small events, unworthy of being preserved in song and story.

And if you’re looking for the first offender in this long history of word-misuse, you’ll have to go back to the the Chronicles of Narnia, written by one of the original Inklings…

…by which I of course mean C.S. Lewis.

While you could argue that, since the Narnia books follow that fictional nation from its inception to its demise, that the final product constitutes a history of the country, that record is far too irregular and incomplete to be called a “chronicle” of anything.

And this is what kept me from investigating Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles for so long. Even now I want to backhand the producers’ collective face and ask them what they were thinking. Why on Earth did they think it was appropriate to give their yuletide fantasy film such a moniker. It’s so vacuous, such a disappoint, so unimaginably…

Sorry, what’s that?

The movie’s opening conceit is a series of video recordings that a family makes each Christmas, regularly documenting their holiday experiences? And the plotline is contingent on the current year’s entry, where the same video camera is used by one of the children to first catch Santa in the act and then to record the series of events in which they save Christmas?

Oh…

Well, this is embarrassing. It turns out that The Christmas Chronicles is literally about a set of chronicles dealing with Christmas. This…uh…never happens. I’m not exactly sure how to feel about it.

It looks like this is The Christmas Chronicles…for real.

A Turning Point

The entire entertainment industry knows that the Netflix paradigm is set to replace the theater-going experience. It’s inevitable. The numbers are playing out exactly the way you would expect as the old Hollywood model circles the drain.

But we are still at the beginning of this transition. Though we may know how the movie landscape is going to change, we don’t exactly know when we will make the full leap to a straight-to-streaming world.

Many prognosticators, however, have predicted that a single motion picture event will provide the catalyst for this change. And a number of those same analysts predicted that last year’s Bright, with its star power and special effects budget, would be the that catalyst.

They were wrong.

Bright sucked. It was more of a “TV movie” than most of the Netflix-exclusive movies that preceded it. It could not serve as the example of a Hollywood movie that bypassed theaters and crowned Netflix as the new first viewing experience.

But The Christmas Chronicles IS that movie.

Yes, really.

And I’m not saying that because The Christmas Chronicles is a great movie. It isn’t. And it likely won’t make it into anyone’s top 10 favorite Christmas movies of all time (the competition is just too fierce), but it is the kind of movie you would expect to find in theaters around Christmas time. If it had been made even five years ago, it would have gone to theaters first.

This movie is the herald of doom—the beginning of the end for the theater industry. You have my word as a critic and connoisseur. THIS. IS. IT.

Need more convincing? Fine.

The Last Prophecy of Walter Disney

Walt Disney did not invent the motion picture—just the version of it that we are familiar with today.

There could hardly be a more forward-thinking innovator in the realm of motion pictures. He piloted not only new forms of animation and filming technologies, but new forms of entertainment, as well. He left us all too soon.

Or perhaps not soon enough. Because it is widely known that Disney’s last words—the thing he struggled to say right before he was taken—was a single name:

“Kurt Russell”

And this has been a mystery ever since, because Kurt Russell was a only a child actor at the time, and relatively unknown. Why the legendary Walt Disney would spend his last breath invoking the name of a boy should be an eternal enigma. Was he simply delirious? Or did he know?

Because he must have known that the art form he pioneered will continually die and be reborn. He himself was responsible for many of those transformations. Perhaps he saw that same transformative potential in a rising star. Perhaps he had a vision of what was to come. And perhaps Death itself had to stop his tongue from revealing the secret.

But setting all melodramatics aside, Kurt Russell is the most important reason why The Christmas Chroniclessignals a landscape change in the entertainment industry. It is correct to assume that the catalyst movie would have star power, but Will Smith’s star power has been on a bit of a downward spiral lately, whereas Kurt Russell’s has been recently reinvigorated.

From now on, you can expect more A-list celebrities to star in straight-to-Netflix films. This movie has opened the door for that more than Bright ever could. It’s going to get less and less surprising each time it happens, until it becomes expected.

What about the Movie Itself?

Right, right. If I’m going to review the movie, I ought to actually review the movie.

The Christmas Chronicles is a typical “X saves Christmas” movie. In this case, X is represented by a couple of precocious children who have recently lost their father, and one of whom is particularly troubled and starting down a dark path which can only be reversed by his learning to believe in Santa and/or himself.

The film however, has a little bit of iron mixed into its feet of clay, with a solid script, believable child actors, and the aforementioned Mr. Russell combining into just the right kind of alchemy to make it a pleasing and mostly inoffensive Christmas movie like the 1990s used to churn out.

Kurt Russel’s Saint Nicholas is the real saving grace, as he gives a slightly sarcastic bent to the character that belies the kind of shrewd competence found in a professional who has been working his job for literally centuries. This Santa is not so much a jolly bowl of jelly as he is a hardened and slightly jaded delivery man who secretly has a heart of gold.

It’s a nuanced take on the character, and one that Mr. Russel is perfect for.

And though the dialogue and story are often corny, they are at least corny in an earnest, no-apologies way that softens the blow and comes across as just plain Christmas-ey.

If I were to make one nitpick, it would be with the depiction of Santa’s elves, which are completely computer animated and smack a little too much of the Despicable Me minions.

But the elves in this movie have one major advantage over the minions in that each elf is given a distinct look and flair. And while none of them is developed enough to rightly have a personality, the individuality of the designs (some of which are quite elaborate) is enough to give the impression that this is a functioning community of people and not merely a horde of carbon-copy comic sidekicks.

On the whole, they are an asset to the story. And in a world where animated sidekicks have become the cheapest possible set dressing, that’s saying something.

My Judgment

The Christmas Chronicles is just good enough to become a perennial Christmas classic, though it will likely never reach the heights of such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life or Arthur Christmas. But it is lightyears ahead of other Christmas movies that have been released in theaters (Four Christmases, Fred Claus) and securely finds itself in the category of passable movies that used to be a constant staple of theaters, before we arrived in the “tentpole or bust” era of motion pictures.

And it is for this reason that I believe The Christmas Chronicles is the first movie to break the glass ceiling of direct-to-streaming movie experiences, because the specific niche of solidly passable, good-but-not-great movies can no longer survive in theaters. Now that one such movie has found a safe landing spot on Netflix, it is only reasonable that others will follow. Historians will look back and mark this movie as the one that changed everything.

And it’s on Netflix right now. Though Christmas may be over and done for this year, I still recommend you watch it—not only so you can say you were there at this special moment in time, but because the movie itself is thoroughly enjoyable.