There are times when it makes sense to bury the lede, and times when it makes sense to just have out with the thing that needs to be said. So let me have out with it: the reason to see The Christmas Chronicles is Kurt Russell's performance as Santa Claus. This cuts two ways. First, it is a reason, and I would not want to be the reason somebody avoided the movie: Russell brought me a tremendous amount of pleasure, and I think it's fair to suggest that other people should also be able to have that pleasure. Second, it is the reason, the only one, and not one other aspect of the film is actually good in anyway. Maybe I shouldn't say "not one". There's a very cool set somewhere in the middle of the film, the elaborate hall of records where Santa keeps all of the letters he's ever received from the eager children of the world.

But the scenario, emotions, narrative stakes, aesthetics, acting, characters - none of these are reasons to see the film. Just about the nicest thing I can come up with is that The Christmas Chronicles is a Netflix original production made for family viewing at the holidays, and if you wander into it with expectations of anything but the most tepid, boilerplate storytelling about the most generic interpersonal conflicts resolved with The True Spirit of Christmas, that really is mostly on you. Surprise, delight, creativity - these are not motivating factors for The Christmas Chronicles, and it's at least slightly disingenuous to be outraged that they do not show up.

The film opens with a montage of home videos, all shot on an old handheld DV camcorder, starting on 25 December, 2006, with little Teddy Pierce (Jesse Gervasi here, Judah Lewis when he grows up to become the film's co-lead) being given a toy firetruck "just like Daddy's". If this makes it sound like Daddy (Oliver Hudson, son of Russell's long-time partner Goldie Hawn) is going to die in a fire sometime between Christmas 2017 and Christmas 2018, and that we're going to see a clip of home video footage for every year between now and then, well ha-HA, The Christmas Chronicles is here to subvert your expectations! It skips a few years before killing Dad in a fire in 2018!

But anyway, yeah, so teenage Teddy is a real sullen asshole, and he does everything in his power to make his 10-year-old sister Kate (Darby Camp) suffer and be unnecessarily miserable, much to the dismay of their harried mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). Come 24 December, 2018, and she is unexpectedly called in to work an emergency shift at the hospital, the apparent last thing needed to make this shittiest of all Christmases even shittier. But Teddy has found a way to make it even worse, abandoning Katie to go hang out with his friends and steal a car. Luckily for her, she captures this on tape - on Dad's old DVCam, no less - and is thus able to blackmail Teddy into staying up with her to try and catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.

It feels to me that there's probably somewhere south of "grand theft auto" to establish that Teddy is taking his dad's death hard, and needs a good dose of Christmas spirit, but I at least admire The Christmas Chronicles for being unreasonably deranged about little things like this. It is, to be sure, kind of a deranged movie (Santa takes too kids into a seedy bar; Santa's elves try to emasculate a teen boy with a chainsaw), though not nearly deranged enough; the whole thing feels appealingly weird up to the point that Santa, having been thrown into a drunk tank in a Chicago police station, leads the prisoners - among them Steve Van Zandt - in a big production number of a Christmas blues song, while Russell breaks out some suprisingly limber old man pelvic thrusts, a reminder of his longago days as the lead in John Carpenter's Elvis biopic. And once that scene has happened, everything else in The Christmas Chronicles feels disappointingly normal, even when it's not.

Connecting "preteen blackmailer" and "Santa in the CPD drunk tank", it of course turns out that Kate and Teddy do manage to spot Santa, and with absolutely no effort, speaking rather poorly of the famously secretive old demigod's ability to pay attention to the spaces around him (also, Santa shows up to their house at 10:38 PM, according to the timestamp on Kate's video, which seems way the hell too early). They sneak onto his sled, hovering above the street, as he zips from house to house - a legitimately striking, magical visual, in a film light on such things - and manage to crash his sled, loosing his reindeer and dropping his magic bag of toys. This cues a whirlwind effort to crisscross Chicago to restore everything in just a couple of hours, then finish up North America before dawn, and then get back to small town Massachusetts before the kids' mom returns from her graveyard shift. And somewhere inside the fetch-quest adventure, Teddy needs to get his head out of his ass.

It's a busy movie with incoherent themes: the True Meaning of Christmas is, far as I can tell, neither "love your fellow man" nor "celebrate the birth of the promised Messiah" nor even "the nuclear family must be preserved and sanctified." It seems to be, literally, no more and nor less than "believe in Santa, the sardonic old man who uses modern slang much too freely and seems a bit of a bossy dick, because he can look into your heart and give you presents". Which is... a message. Anyway, watching Teddy undergo an evolution whose end point was predictable in all ways by the end of his first scene is perfectly tedious and obvious, but not defective; if this somehow happens to be the first Christmas movie a small child has ever watched, they might even find it heartwarming.

But I return to my original point: the reason for any of this is Kurt Russell. The film looks okay, thanks to a lot of nighttime cinematography in downtown Toronto giving it a pleasantly twinkly look; its hideous, plastic-looking CGI elves are at least shockingly designed, enough to be interesting intrusions of a zany cartoon into live-action. Mostly, though, it's just dull, executed by director Clay Kaytis with perfectly perfunctory hackwork, and both child leads are too callow to make the generic character arcs or robotic dialogue feel interesting. Russell, though, is an endearing marvel, playing a much more prickly than warmhearted Santa, with a breezy, good-natured annoyance that feels very much like if his snappish Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China had tripped and fallen into Miracle on 34th Street. Cinematographer Don Burgess and the lighting team have done a fine job of keeping a bright little pinpoint of light in Russell's eyes, which help to give a sense of magical whimsy to the character, and that helps to keep things from getting needlessly curt; but the strange pleasure of seeing the jolliest man in mythology transformed into a tart-tongued Russell character needs no safety net. Plus, the actor appears to having a terrific time with the silly, dumb comedy and needlessly complex mythology he's dealing with, and it's so energetic that it transfers through the screen. This all shallow and trite, but Russell's Santa is such a disarming delight that it almost makes me wish that The Christmas Chronicle set up shop as a seasonal perennial for children far and near. Almost.