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Why We’re Okay With Terrible Christmas Movies

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘The Christmas Chronicles’

Approximately a thousand years ago, I interned at a mediocre cable channel that specialized in mediocre TV movies. This was ages before “prestige television.” Basically, this channel, like so many others, was just trying to make cheap knockoff versions of successful films. And because they had a family audience, that meant tons of Christmas movies. I’d sit in on pitch meetings throughout the year where we were all encouraged to throw out ideas for cheesy, silly, heartwarming stories involving the holidays. Essentially, we had to include Santa, yuletide spirit, the season of giving or anything else that made people think of Christmas. At none of these meetings was there ever a concern about the ideas being original, or y’know, good. As long as it checked off those boxes in a mildly novel way, it was considered.

We now live in a world of Christmas movies. Channels like Hallmark and Lifetime produce them by the dozens, and newer portals like Netflix are going all-in as well. Netflix has the most high-profile one at the moment, with the Thanksgiving release of The Christmas Chronicles. You’ve probably heard about it: Kurt Russell plays a slightly snarky Santa who teams up with two adorable, albeit fractious siblings (Judah Lewis, Darby Camp) on Christmas Eve to retrieve his lost presents and runaway reindeer.

The movie got a lot of attention, in part, because it’s playing into the hot Santa phenomenon, but people are also checking out The Christmas Chronicles because it’s got a decent pedigree for a Netflix film. After all, Kurt Russell is a movie star. And it’s produced by Chris Columbus, the man behind Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Bear in mind, none of those bona fides actually improves the film’s quality. But I suspect “quality” has little to do with the appeal of The Christmas Chronicles. The film operates under the same principle as those pitch meetings I attended years ago. Deep down, we apparently don’t care if our Christmas movies are terrible. In fact, the terribleness is a crucial component.

Don’t take my word on it: Listen to people who actually like The Christmas Chronicles. Writing in Entertainment Weekly, critic Dana Schwartz, who gave the film a good review, summed up her enjoyment by advising, “Make some cocoa for the family, and spike yours if you have to, but remember what the holiday is about: watching mediocre, predictable movies with the people you love.”

That’s exactly what it feels like to watch The Christmas Chronicles: The movie plays like a yuletide babysitting tool for the entire family. You know how parents of young children will turn the TV on to keep their toddler occupied? The Christmas Chronicles, like lots of Christmas movies, serves the same purpose for children and adults. As you passively watch the film, there’s little doubt how everything will ultimately play out. The feuding siblings will reconnect. Santa will deliver the toys on time. Life lessons will be learned. Sticky sentiment will be expressed. And everybody will have a Merry Christmas. Roll credits.

There have always been bad Christmas movies, but this new breed is notably different than the old crop. For one thing, they used to play in theaters — I’m talking about stunning mediocrities like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone and The Santa Clause. And some of them were actually good. (It’s a Wonderful Life and the original Miracle on 34th Street are still terrific — although the 1994 remake of Miracle is not.) But this new strain is largely relegated to cable and Netflix, although you will get the occasional A Bad Moms Christmas or A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas that still makes its way to the multiplex. And unlike a bygone age of by-the-numbers holiday films, the Lifetime/Hallmark/Netflix Christmas-industrial complex has weaponized the genre’s tacky awfulness. It’s not that these movies phone it in, exactly — it’s just that they know you’re wanting the most undemanding entertainment possible.

Of this new crop of knowingly-terrible Christmas movie, Hallmark really has cornered the market, leaning into their films’ guilty-pleasure appeal to such a degree that a popular podcast like Deck the Hallmark can exist entirely to skewer how bad they are. It’s easy to be snide about these threadbare holiday rom-coms, with generic titles such as Christmas Under Wraps and The Christmas Cottage, but they’re big business. Hallmark had monster ratings last winter thanks to its Christmas movies. And according to the New York Post, the network produced 34 Christmas films this year — and is aiming to make 90 in 2019. They’ve turned Christmas badness into a viable business model.

Netflix offers its own variations on the genre, like A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, but The Christmas Chronicles is a throwback to the old-school style of bad Christmas movie. Rather than following the Hallmark model — which invariably casts two blandly pretty, un-famous actors to play dopey, earnest characters who kiss as fake snow falls in the background — the family-friendly Kurt Russell film gives us slapstick, hijinks and broad, inoffensive jokes mixed with a little tear-jerking emotional manipulation. (We learn early on in The Christmas Chronicles that the siblings are having a tough time because their dad recently died. I was actually afraid for a while that the film’s happy ending might include Santa somehow bringing Dad back to life.) Everything in The Christmas Chronicles is handled in the lamest, easiest, sloppiest way possible — director Clay Kaytis’ previous film was the equally mindless Angry Birds Movie — and if you happen to look away from the screen for a few minutes, don’t worry: You can basically catch up pretty quickly with what you missed.

This is the way it is with bad Christmas movies, which lay a nice cozy, warm afghan blanket of passable entertainment on your lap while you’re chilling during the holidays. There’s a nostalgic, ritualistic pull to their badness, a comforting reminder of past Christmas seasons. And as a result, you may be tempted right about now to defend some personal family favorite Christmas movie. Yes, Elf is good. So is A Christmas Story. Not every Christmas movie is atrocious. But it speaks to their overall quality that we don’t watch many of them except around Christmas. You need the trappings of the yuletide season for these films to really work. (As much as I’m proDie Hard is a Christmas movie,” one of the ways in which it isn’t a Christmas movie is that it’s great any time of year.) The Christmas Chronicles is really just a more sophisticated version of those seasonal fireplace videos — it’s a thing to throw on because it just seems appropriate to the time of year.

I’m not immune to this badness. I watch bad Christmas movies with some of my wife’s family over the holidays. It’s become a tradition I really enjoy. There’s no hushed reverence — we watch them to make fun of them. Like Christmas music, bad Christmas movies are meant to add atmosphere to your festive occasion. You can talk to your family and absentmindedly have one on in the background. And if you run out of things to say — or if somebody brings up politics or old family issues — hey, just focus back on the movie.

To that end, I think one of the reasons why I didn’t like The Christmas Chronicles is because I watched it by myself, in late November. That isn’t the ideal circumstance to experience that particular film. You need the holidays. You need your loved ones. You need to be slightly bored but also happy to be away from work and responsibilities. Bad Christmas movies, with their lame messages about the joy of the holidays, peddle a myth about Christmas being the best time of year. But I know that for a lot of people, it’s not — it’s stressful and it’s emotionally fraught, and it’s depression-inducing. To the rescue comes cheesy Christmas movies, which give us all something to sneer at together. We’re not just laughing at them — we’re mocking the phony, fantasyland good cheer they try to pretend is everyone’s Christmas reality.

Here are three other takeaways from The Christmas Chronicles.

#1. Brad Paisley was so infatuated with one of the film’s stars that he married her.

Kimberly Williams-Paisley plays The Christmas Chronicles’ widowed single mom. Lately, she’s become a Christmas-movie veteran, starring in The Christmas Shoes and The Christmas Train. But she got her first big role 27 years ago when she was the young woman getting ready for her wedding in the Steve Martin remake of Father of the Bride.

When I saw that movie, I admit that I developed a crush on Williams — she just seemed like this fun, flirty, cool ideal of the girl next door. Ironically, I went to the movie with my girlfriend at the time, so I couldn’t really bring this up. But it turns out, I was hardly the only person on a date who decided that Williams was the women of his dreams.

Brad Paisley is one of country’s biggest and best superstars — if you’re looking for a place to start with him, I’d recommend 2009’s American Saturday Night — and he’s been married to Williams (now Williams-Paisley) since 2003. In case you ever wondered how their love affair started, Paisley sang about it on “Back to the Future”:

Here’s most of the lyrics…

I went to see Father of the Bride
With a girl back home
We broke up before the sequel
So I went to that one all alone
I wondered who I’d wind up with
And what would our kids look like
Well I guess I got my answer
As I tucked them in tonight

For the record, my girlfriend and I were also broken up by the time of 1995’s Father of the Bride Part II. I never saw it — I had moved on from Williams by that point. In retrospect, I realize that my mistake was not becoming a famous musician: Casting your crush to be the star of your music video as a way to meet her is a pretty boss move.

#2. If we can’t get rid of “fake news,” can we at least get rid of “fake news” jokes?

Near the end of 2017, Collins Dictionary announced that “fake news” was the word of the year — thanks, of course, to Donald Trump invoking the phrase over and over again when disparaging any news report with which he disagrees. The term “fake news” is so ubiquitous in the culture that you hear people using it ironically in conversations when they’re suggesting that something isn’t true. And every single time it’s used, in any context, it makes me want to die.

So imagine how miserable I was to discover that The Christmas Chronicles has a “fake news” joke. When Santa shows up in the movie, the kids are, of course, stunned to see him. But they’re also a little thrown. For one thing, he’s not nearly as heavy as he appears in pop culture, which makes Santa irritable. (“Why must they keep drawing me like that?” he asks, looking at an illustration of a super-fat Santa. “I mean, does my butt really look that big to you?”) Also, he doesn’t do the whole “Ho ho ho” thing. (“I don’t go ‘Ho ho ho,’” Santa says, indignant. “That’s a myth. Fake news!” )

This brings to mind a question: Who is that joke intended for? Presumably, it’s for people who think Trump is a buffoon, right? Santa is mocking the whole notion of “fake news,” isn’t he? But as Den of Geek’s Alec Bojalad points out, “there is a non-zero percent possibility that this [movie] becomes the alt-right’s preferred iteration of Santa” precisely because Kris Kringle invokes Trump’s favored term.

Look, The Christmas Chronicles is a dumb Christmas movie. I get that. But including a “fake news” joke just seems insidious. It normalizes a pretty hideous attempt to treat facts and a free press with suspicion, even contempt. There are a lot of bad jokes in The Christmas Chronicles, but that’s the only one that really bothered me.

#3. The movie features a bad version of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” But, really, every version of that song is bad.

Netflix hasn’t released a video of the scene yet, but The Christmas Chronicles features Santa Claus, in jail, spontaneously busting out a rendition of the bluesy “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” in which all the other prisoners play instruments or provide background vocals. (These other characters don’t seem to have musical ability — apparently, Santa makes them talented through … magic?)

Anyway, the performance is pretty wretched and cringe-inducing. Even worse, it forces all of us to listen to “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” which I think is an awful Christmas song. It’s not “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” bad, but still pretty bad.

The song is most famous for Elvis Presley’s version from 1957, and it’s clearly the one the movie is trying to ape. If you haven’t seen The Christmas Chronicles, imagine if the spirit of Bruce Willis circa The Return of Bruno inhabited the body of senior-citizen Kurt Russell while dressed as Santa Claus. That’s what this “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” sounds like. Except worse.

That said, Presley’s original version is pretty junky as well:

Others have tried to cover it over the years, including Dwight Yoakam and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Those covers are also bad. The reason is because it’s such a simple, obvious blues song. I know this because in Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, written by ace songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, they recount how “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” came together. Essentially, Presley was recording a Christmas album and he needed one more song. Fast. So, Leiber said to his partner, “Let’s not screw around with anything overly inventive. Let’s write this guy a straight-up, no-nonsense 12-bar blues with a Christmas lyric.”

The song was written in 15 minutes, and it took only a couple of takes to record. Leiber calls it “one of Elvis’s great blues performances.”

I’m not convinced — although it’s still way better than Russell’s rendition.