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NEW YORK (CNS) -- Given that much of its content is geared toward mature audiences, it comes as a pleasant surprise when Netflix produces programming aimed at younger viewers as well as grown-ups. Likable, spirited, if somewhat prosaic, "The Christmas Chronicles" is a case in point. The holiday-themed movie is streaming now.
Chris Columbus, director of the broadly popular 1990 comedy "Home Alone," produces the film, which Clay Kaytis ("The Angry Birds Movie") directs. Set on Christmas Eve 2018 in Lowell, Massachusetts, aspects of the plot will remind viewers of Columbus' long-ago big hit.
The Pierce family is preparing for their first Christmas without their firefighter dad, Doug (Oliver Hudson).
Overwhelmed mother Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) is a nurse who takes extra shifts at the local hospital to offset the loss of income resulting from her husband's death. She appears largely unaware that her teenage son, Teddy (Judah Lewis), has been involved in underaged drinking and stealing cars with his friends.
Still a true believer in Santa, 11-year-old Kate (Darby Camp) is aware of her brother's wayward behavior and leverages her knowledge to convince Teddy to help her catch St. Nick on videotape.
When Santa (Kurt Russell) arrives at their home, the kids climb aboard his sleigh. Disrupting his flight, they cause him to crash and his reindeer to disperse near Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. Minus his reliable guides, and his stocking cap, which is the source of his magical powers, Father Christmas fears he won't be able to complete his appointed rounds.
"People need Christmas," Kris Kringle tells the chagrined duo, "to remind themselves how good they can be." "But you two," he adds, "are on the naughty list for life." Realizing ruining Christmas is "the worst thing a kid could do," the siblings entreat Santa to let them help him save the night.
The trio ventures into an Irish bar, Nick's Place, to secure a ride to re-connect with the reindeer. St. Nicholas, of course, knows the details of each denizen's life, including bouncer Charlie's (Tony Nappo) long criminal history. Using Charlie as a cautionary example, Santa hopes to shock Teddy back onto the straight and narrow.
Mystifyingly, however, only a moment later Father Christmas allows Teddy to steal a car Charlie himself had stolen. This dubious incident, with its implication that the ends justify the means, muddies the film's otherwise positive values.
While the producers may feel "The Christmas Chronicles" is suitable for the entire family, numerous plot points make it inappropriate for younger children. Besides the underage drinking, auto theft and other criminality portrayed, the film includes some violence. In another curious misstep, for example. an elf threatens someone with a chainsaw.
An extended car chase will make the audience feel as if they've seen this movie too many times before. But superior visual and special effects occasionally lift "The Christmas Chronicles" above the ordinary. In fact, at times, viewers will almost believe, in the words of the old seasonal tune, that "reindeer really know how to fly."
The film also contains some nice messages about believing, and children healing after the devastating loss of a father. The sense of peace and restoration Teddy experiences in the end would have registered more with the viewers, however, if Doug had been more of a presence in the movie and not just a cipher.
Bringing the right mix of pluck and innocence to Kate's role, Camp impresses. But it's Russell's discerning, genuine and amiable performance as Santa that really carries the movie. Though it sometimes falters, when it flies, "The Christmas Chronicles" makes diverting fare for most of the family.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.