Santa’s back, and Goldie’s got him, as the MGM marketing department of yore might have put it, and while Netflix’s “The Christmas Chronicles 2” hits pretty much every note you’d expect, it throws in enough surprises, and deep dives into Yuletide lore, to keep it from being mere tinsel.
In a year when most of us won’t be able to spend the holidays with our families, the film offers a reunion or two: Hollywood power spouses Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn co-star in a movie for the first time since the original “Overboard,” and Christmas royalty Chris Columbus (writer of “Gremlins,” director of “Home Alone”) returns to the director’s chair after producing the first “Chronicles” in 2018.
This time, Columbus co-writes with Matt Lieberman (who also wrote the original), and the two of them have clearly done their Christmas research, crafting a storyline that weaves in everything from Santa’s Turkish origins to the Icelandic legend of the Yule Cat (Jólakötturinn, who goes by “Jola” for short here) to the Star of Bethlehem itself.
Also part of the holiday’s history is Belsnickel, one of Santa’s gift-giving antecedents, but in “Christmas Chronicles 2,” Belsnickel (Julian Dennison, “Deadpool 2”) is Santa’s former right-hand elf, so embittered by the big man’s devotion to others that he misbehaves and is eventually cursed with becoming a human. (If this devoted-apprentice-goes-bad plot thread sounds familiar, it’s because it also pops up in one of Netflix’s other big holiday titles this year, “Jingle Jangle.”)
Belsnickel’s scheme to get back into Santa’s magical village in the North Pole involves Kate (Darby Camp), the first film’s heroine, who’s pouting through a Christmas vacation in Cancun because she doesn’t want her widowed mom Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) to remarry. Kate — along with Jack (Jahzir Bruno, “The Witches”), her potential new step-brother — get whisked to the North Pole by Belsnickel, who abandons them in their beachwear, so that he can tag along when Santa shows up to rescue them.
After Belsnickel’s nefariously naughty plans come to fruition, it’s up to Santa (Russell) and Mrs. Claus (Hawn) to save the holiday with their young pals. The plot involves a ticking clock — it’s Chris Columbus, after all — and time travel, not to mention friendly forest elves, magic cookies, and an airport musical number — again, Chris Columbus — featuring Russell, Darlene Love, and a full gospel choir.
Story-wise, you pretty much know what you’re in for here, but Columbus and Lieberman make a real effort to flesh out the notion of Santa Claus for the 21st century, updating the old legends just like Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, and scores of other writers and illustrators have over the course of the last few centuries. The VFX team makes Santa’s Village (which the kids suggest should be called “Mrs. Claus’ Village,” since she did design the thing) feel both tangible and magical, and Russell and Hawn convincingly capture these icons of generosity, centuries old but still capable of getting excited about candy canes. And no one can order “Cornish pixie dandruff” as a hot chocolate add-in quite like Goldie Hawn can.
Their ease and wit in the roles make “Christmas Chronicles 2” go down easier than it might have otherwise, since the juvenile performers seem to have been directed at a much higher pitch. And now that he’s made two major sequels that involve him playing a character having a feature-length tantrum, I hope directors find other kinds of roles for the talented Dennison, who made his breakthrough in Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”
Given that the history of holiday movies is dotted with some incredibly wrong-headed attempts at portraying Santa Claus — for every “Miracle on 34th Street,” there’s always a “Santa Claus: The Movie” — this sequel not only provides a second go-round to one of the cinema’s better St. Nicks, it also makes some improvements upon its predecessor. Santa’s elves aren’t nearly as annoyingly Minion-y as they were in “Chronicles 1,” and the presence of Darlene Love makes the requisite impromptu musical number a galactic improvement over the first one. If there’s a number three, maybe they can ditch the kids and just let Ms. Love hang out at the North Pole with those cool-cat Clauses.