To begin with the only issue of any real importance: in the Netflix original movie The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two, Kurt Russell isn't nearly as much pure, weightless fun in the role of Santa Claus as he was in 2018's The Christmas Chronicles. This is in part, of course, because The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two can't possibly hope to have the same spark of newness; we already know what Russell playing Santa looks like, and so the mere fact that he's doing it now can't really count for any points. Also, the new film's script, by Chris Columbus (who also directs) and Matt Lieberman, gives Russell fewer moments to just hang out and be feisty as a physically fit, sexy-grandpa version of the holiday icon. However, the sequel promotes Goldie Hawn up from in-joke cameo as Mrs. Claus to full character with her own emotional notes and subplot, and I am tempted to say that the substantial increase in Hawn at least offsets the diminishing of Russell. So in terms of raw movie star appeal, my verdict is that the second film is a lateral move from the first, and if your only goal is to watch famous people with oodles of charisma having goofy fun in a big, over-designed Christmas fantasy (and this is the only goal that the film is remotely interested in supporting), good news! It will get you where you need to be.

As for the package you must unwrap in order to get at this festive Hawn/Russell treat, thereon hangs a tale. A big, lugubrious, multi-part tale, spanning centuries and creating an entire cosmology, in fact. For as it turns out Part Two has designs on being much, much bigger than The Christmas Chronicles ever suggested would even be a possibility. That film was, ultimately, just a low-key made-for-TV bit of holiday boilerplate, a story set in a whole lot of fairly bland Toronto locations about the most trite of Christmas messages, in which troubled teen Teddy Pierce (Judah Lewis) learns to stop being a dick to his perky tween sister Kate (Darby Camp),and thereby remember how to appreciate the warm glow of the season; other than the sight of Russell in a vaguely pleathery Santa Claus costume, it has only enough visual effects to make you wish it had fewer, and one fantasy-movie location. Part Two has almost nothing but fantasy locations, other than Logan Airport, and hey, if you want to consider Logan Airport to be a fantasy location, I'm not going to insist on telling you that you're wrong.

On top of this, Part Two has a fantasy plot, a MacGuffin hunt against a ticking clock that involves time travel, a journey into a mountainous wilderness, a Santa Claus origin story that actually tries to account for recorded history, and a fight against an army of rabid CGI elves (I am pleased to report that the CGI elves look way better than they did in the first movie. I am disappointed to report that they still look like crap), and while you still get a pretty straightforward family movie message if you strip away all of the hero's quest filigree, you would at that point have a film of around 15 minutes. It is, in effect, a Santa Claus-themed Harry Potter movie, and to that end, it has a Harry Potter movie director guiding it into the world. Unfortunately, the director in question is Chris Columbus, who got the Potter franchise kicked off with Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, who served as producer on the first Christmas Chronicles, and who has brought to The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two his characteristic spiritual emptiness. I confess that if you were to ask me if I thought Columbus was an auteur, I would have laughed so hard at you that I'd have started choking. And yet, watching this movie, I was deeply, painfully aware that I was watching a Santa Claus movie made by the same director as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: they have an identical way of leadenly swooping around fantasy sets in a self-conscious attempt to show them off, but doing so in a deeply charmless way that feels like a real estate agent trying to sell us some gaudy white elephant of a McMansion.

They also have a clumsy inability to cope with too much plot. Lieberman and Columbus's screenplay gives us a whole lot of stuff to deal with: Kate and Teddy's mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), two years after her beloved firefighter husband died, has started dating a swell new guy named Bob (Tyrese Gibson), with a neurotic, easily terrified son named Jack (Jahzir Bruno). Bob is clearly sweet and harmless, but he's also perhaps trying too hard, and to this end has paid for all five of them to spend Christmas in Cancun. Kate, very righteously in my opinion, thinks that spending late December someplace where it doesn't snow is real bullshit, and coupled with her rage at Bob for trying to interrupt what she thinks ought to be an endless process of family grieving, she decides to run away, praying to her good friend Santa Claus to intercede on her behalf. This makes her a perfect target for Belsnickel (Julian Dennison, of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Deadpool 2, who with this role I think has officially started becoming typecast), an ex-elf who now lives in a miserable little high-tech lab at the South Pole, plotting how he will destroy the Star of Bethlehem that Santa uses to power his town at the North Pole, and generate the auroral shield that presents it from the outside world. He manages to trap Kate and Jack in the frozen wastes of the arctic, and sneaks through the shield when Santa rescues the kids.

Things get more cluttered from there, particularly when the film spends its third act separating Santa/Kate, Mrs. Claus, and Jack, each of whom get their own little adventure movie plotline, though it's a sign of how ill-equipped the 112-minute movie is to deal with the sprawl it tries to create that the latter two characters seem to achieve their goals with no meaningful amount of effort (for that matter, Santa and Kate achieve their goals with only a small bit of effort, most of which involves Kurt Russell singing a Christmas soul duet with Darlene Love as an airport terminal full of grumpy travelers put on a huge dance number). This is joylessly overstuffed, speed-walking through plot points at the highest speed that will allow them to fully register, and generally treating the story as an obligation to cope with rather than an opportunity to dazzle and delight the viewer. This approach made sense in Columbus's Harry Potter films, which were attempts to wrangle overstuffed books with a fanbase that insisted on hyper-literal fidelity into something resembling a functional object. Here, in theory, the writers could have made just enough story to fill the time they had, and so come up with something that felt comfortably paced, but apparently this is not how we make children's adventure movies any more.

I am torn. This is, on the one hand, an indescribably bizarre idea for a sequel to what is, ultimately, a by-the-books Christmas movie. Not that The Christmas Chronicles is any kind of sacred text, but it's the sort of "cozy slippers and a cup of tea" holiday film that one expects from the Netflix shingle. Part Two is effortful, if nothing else, messy and strange. And this is the other hand: it's at least not playing things safe. It is doing a terrible job of this, to be sure, with it oozy pacing and at times godawful visual effects (at one point, a CGI elf is visibly misaligned on Dennison's shoulder; and I have only scorn for the big cat Santa has to fend off before it eats his reindeer). But it's hard not to respond with at least some enthusiasm for a film that goes so far off the rails, and in the context of something so bland-on-paper as a made-for-Netflix sequel directed by Chris Columbus. The film isn't good, on multiple levels, but it's definitely weird, and I will take weird if I can get nothing else.