This year, Netflix went full force into the holiday movie realm, previously occupied by Hallmark movies and Freeform offshoots. They reached success in 2017 with A Christmas Prince, a hit by the only standard we have to judge Netflix (word-of-mouth via social media fangirls/boys), and even coaxed some talent with minor name recognition (Jake Lacy, Andie MacDowell) with The Christmas Inheritance. These two clearly garnered enough success for Netflix to double its Holiday Originals output, as we got FOUR (4) brand spankin’ new Christmas movies. That’s not even mentioning the other random specials they developed for shows like Great British Baking Show and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. There was a supposed War on Christmas? Well folks, Netflix don’t care. You’re getting that merry holiday cheer beamed through your eyeballs whether you like it or not.
What’s the last Christmas movie you can remember coming out in theaters? For me, the one that jumped off my tongue was Fred Claus, an unremarkable albeit good representation of the holiday movie template that starred Vince Vaughn pre-dramatic role shift. If we search Wiki, we can see that there’s actually been a few others since then (The Night Before; A Bad Moms’ Christmas; Harold and Kumar Christmas; A Madea Christmas; Krampus; Office Christmas Party) but those range from raunchy adult comedy to horror, not things we associate with a good ol’ fashioned family theater outing.
That vacancy is exactly why this move by Netflix is a good grab. But are any of these worthy enough to be a step above the cringey made-for-TV movies we see on Lifetime? Or classic enough that they’d be considered worthy additions to the ’25 Days of Christmas’ on Freeform? I ventured to find out, watching all four of the new attempts at distilling holiday cheer into 90 minutes, and just barely survived to tell the tale. Read below for my reviews on the first two and reports on my slow descent into madness.
The Christmas Chronicles
The biggest noisemaker for Netflix was The Christmas Chronicles. It grabbed Kurt Russell, an A+ movie star, to play Santa Claus. One of the most important recipes for a good, memorable Christmas movie is casting a charismatic and notable actor for the face of the holiday, presenting the jovial man and hearty belly that is Kris Kringle. So they had this off to the right start. Unfortunately, the movie certainly does not imply that he’s the main player. We begin by focusing on a family that has recently lost their father (played by Oliver Hudson! Keep it in the family baby!), following a saddened young daughter with a passion for Christmas that matched her dad’s, and a bully of an older brother. The mother has to work long, constant hours so she’s simply there to reveal the hardship the family has faced. One night, the daughter catches a glimpse of what could be Santa in one of the home videos they made every year, and blackmails her brother (we’ll get to the specifics in a second) to help catch him definitively that night. They do, and they end up in a night full of craziness with a rockstar Santa.
All of those details would imply this is the most likely to become a classic. And by all means, it is on its way with over 20 million streams in its first week. But its centering of the story on the relationship between brother and sister, instead of going full force into Kurt Russell’s decidedly unique take on Father Christmas makes it a letdown, falling short of what could have been glorious launching point for a KRBASCU (KURT RUSSELL BAD ASS SANTA CLAUS UNIVERSE). Let’s get into the details a bit more.
The reason that emotional core between the brother and sister doesn’t work is because 1) these actors SUCK, 2) the cliche of the bullying brother distraught by the loss of a family member is so overplayed, and 3) THEY TREAT EACH OTHER SO POORLY YOU HAVE TO WONDER IF THESE PARENTS DID ANY PARENTING AT ALL.
The film’s real plot begins with the daughter recording herself on the same camera* her dad used every Christmas, a sweet way to remember and carry on his legacy. Except, well, the brother doesn’t think so, because he is #moody and cool. He peers in through her door and makes fun of her, grabbing the camera and then leaving, though he’s not supposed to leave his sister home alone. She follows him, because he’s a sketchy asshole, and sees him hijack a car.
*Quick NSFW note on that camera: Let’s hope that madre hid all the other tapes they made; little worried about this young girl having free reign over her dad’s camcorder tapes, which you know, he clearly definitely never recorded anything but Christmas morning gifting…
What’s that? You didn’t hear me right? Ok, one more time. She sees him HIJACK A CAR.
Yeah. So, she records him doing this on her trusty camcorder, proceeds to wait until he’s home, tells him, he attacks her (sounds more aggressive than it is), and then she covers for him when the mom asks why he’s being such a dick. The girl then BLACKMAILS him with the tape of his VERY SERIOUS CRIME so he’ll capture Santa on camera. Ok, sure. Normal sibling shenanigans.
Of course, as the movie goes on we’re expected to be ay-okay with this little turd’s bullying, bad attitude, and, one more time for the people in the back, FELONY CRIME. This is because he is only acting out from the loss of his father and apparent newfound lack of belief in Christmas. We can thank the shenanigans Santa causes for his new respect for his family, passion for the holiday, and duty as the man of the house.
Like I said before, this flick would have been infinitely better if instead we focused on Kurt Russell. He’s obviously a major player, as he initiates most of the action, trying to save Christmas and get his deliveries out on time after he loses his sack (lol) and sleigh. The biggest sin committed by the filmmakers is that they lock Russell up (literally) in jail for half the movie. Something meant to punctuate the dire need for Christmas spirit, and to showcase Lamorne Morris playing a variation of Winston Bishop for a couple sparsely placed lines. I can’t complain too much though, because this does deliver one of the best scenes of the year in any movie: Kurt Russell, as Santa Claus, performing a rock-n-roll/blues song with his fellow cellmates using instruments conjured out of thin air and a light show to rival even Taylor Swift’s concerts. I joke a lot, but seriously, it’s fucking incredible.
This feels like it’ll spawn a sequel, and I hope it does, because it means we get to spend more time with gruff, rockstar Santa. I just wish they did it a bit more in this one (and had less weird CGI elves, who at one point start doing the floss. Kill me.)
The Princess Switch
Next up is my favorite of the whole bunch. It’s not a good movie, but it is extremely entertaining due to its wholesale terribleness, delivering consistent laughs at how unbelievably dumb aspects of it are.
While Vanessa Hudgens, the owner of a bakery in Chicago, travels around London, um, sorry, I mean Belgravia (a London ripoff) as she awaits partaking in the international holiday baking championship, she runs into a lookalike: the duchess of Montenaro (also played by Vanessa Hudgens). As it turns out, the duchess is not all too interested in spending the weekend with her soon-to-be husband, the crown prince of Belgravia. Apparently these weird arranged marriages still happen in what appears to be fairly first-world, contemporary-thinking countries, something the duchess is concerned about as she has met the prince a grand total of one time. Hudgens the baker needs convincing, and it takes the duchess to offer a spot in Belgravia’s renowned ballet dancing program for her best friend’s daughter to really turn the tide. They spend time (a grand total of 10 minutes) learning each other’s mannerisms and quirks and then go their separate ways. In the end they, in true made-for-TV movie fashion, fall in love with the men in each other’s respective lives and live happily ever after. Cool, now let’s get into what really makes this great.
First off, the ability of these two women to completely imbue each other’s entire personality, tics, and so on after spending minimal time together is truly impressive. Almost no one questions their identity, except for the King’s right-hand man (our one antagonist) and the baker’s friend’s daughter. The daughter is clued in immediately, and mentions nothing to her father, despite the fact there is a stranger impersonating their dear friend while they stay in a foreign country. Maybe it’s the little girl’s naïveté, or maybe it’s just because she herself is having a struggle for identity as they can’t seem to settle on whether she is 7 years old or 13 years old. Of course, both of the men in the scenario do notice certain differences (the baker is much more pushy and forward than the duchess; the duchess is…um…..not distinct in any way really).
The biggest atrocity to me, and one that fascinates from the moment Hudgens the duchess appears, is the accents. Hudgens the baker, despite being a Chicagoan, doesn’t have much of an accent, something that I am OK with. No, it’s Hudgens the duchess who is an enigma. Her voice and speaking, a diction reminiscent of Downton Abbey, flaunts a British accent not heard since the 1800s, despite this being set in the modern day. Maybe the fictional country of Montenaro is bit dated, but more likely our dear Vanessa is not able to do anything but a caricature of a royal British person and could not relent at being able to really draw out the A and O in Montenaro. Every other accent in the movie is normal and what you’d expect to hear, so each time Hudgens speaks it’s a new favorite moment.
Let’s discuss the conflicts in the movie. The King cues in on Hudgens, but simply because he doesn’t like who she is, not because he suspects there is some foul play afoot. Remember, this is because NO ONE IN THIS MOVIE BESIDES THE DUCHESS’ HANDLER HAS EVER MET THE DUCHESS MORE THAN ONCE. Anyway, the King orders his crony to keep an eye on the duchess, who actually figures out the place-switching, in the most normal and definitely not creepy way possible: taking pictures of the women in their bedroom while perched outside on a ledge. Eventually, after the women switch back they have to confront the fact that they lied to everyone, something literally no one cares about despite it being a point of contention and worry for the entire movie.
Seriously, the prince is like “dope! I get to be with the girl who fell in love with me after a day” and the baker’s friend, who by the way is inexplicably absolutely ripped in a random shirtless scene only meant to show that Hudgens the duchess is physically attracted to him, is like “OK, kinda lame but also I finally can get with the girl I’ve been in love with all along! Cool!”, while the King’s crony and the Queen, who the crony informed after his peeping tom incident, don’t get any sort of pleasure out of this. Getting worried over nothing! A classic Christmas tradition!
There’s another minor subplot, centered around Hudgens the baker’s rival who is dating her ex-boyfriend and is also in the baking competition. We see a random scene of her rival sinisterly cutting the cord on one of her appliances, which ends up doing absolutely nothing. I’m not kidding. The extent of consequences of this sabotage is that Hudgens has to mix her ingredients by hand, instead of using the automated mixer. Hudgens wins the competition. There’s not even a confrontation between the two. This movie is set around conflicts that come to fruition by being non-starters. This film will be studied in film classes for years to come.
The last thing to cover in the magical The Princess Switch is just that, the magic. Christmas movies are at their best when they have an air of mysticism and fantasy around them. The holidays provide a lightness, joy exuding from everyone, and good things coming to those that deserve them. Sometimes it’s not explicitly stated or is just there on the periphery waiting to be fully exposed. In The Princess Switch, it exists in both of those ways, except it is never exposed and never mentioned or questioned by anyone. There is a weird old man who continues to appear, from the beginning to just before the ending scenes, to either push our unrelated twins together, provoke them into love, or prevent those simmering conflicts that never amount to anything from rising. He just appears, consistently, only to be noticed one time by the baker’s friend who simply says “didn’t I just see you?” which receives a non-response. That’s it. What is his deal? Did he conjure up the entire situation? How did he know all of them, and how did he know they’d all fall in love? Who the fuck is he, is he doing everything out of the goodness of his heart, and how is he all-knowing? Hopefully he reappears in the sequel, and we find out his pulling of the strings caused a rift in the universe, leading to a dark timeline that only, wait for it….KURT RUSSELL’S ROCKSTAR SANTA CAN SAVE. That’s right, Netflix, I got your holiday movie universe all figured out. Let’s get that contract started.
Thanks for reading! Please let me know your thoughts on this selection of holiday movies, and return next week for Part 2, where I breakdown The Holiday Calendar and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding.