Outside of Dr. Suess’ The Grinch, there are no holiday movies in theaters this year. That means you’ve got to look to Hallmark and Netflix for your Christmas cravings. The latter is laying down the cheer heavy this season, with guilty pleasures like A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding and the hip kids’ movie The Christmas Chronicles. Personally, I think The Christmas Chronicles is bad, but a lot of people seem to like it, mainly because of Kurt Russell‘s hot Santa Claus, so for everyone either enjoying it or forced to view it, I’ve compiled a list of much better movies to watch afterward. Not all are holiday movies, but I did make it out to be 12 titles so you can watch one each of the days of Christmas.
Santa Claus (1898)
If you’re looking for the earliest on-screen appearance from St. Nick, George Albert Smith’s 1898 short Santa Claus (aka The Visit From Santa Claus) is among the very first Christmas movies. As cinema was a the time, this British film is very brief and simply plotted, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a simple film due to the way Smith presents the arrival of his title character. As is noted by the BFI: “this is believed to be the cinema’s earliest known example of parallel action and, when coupled with double-exposure techniques…the result is one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then.” For more very early Christmas movies produced over a year ago, check out a list I wrote six years ago.
A Trap for Santa Claus (1909)
If you’re interested in a little more plot, this D.W. Griffith one-reeler will do the trick and then some. A Trap for Santa Claus has about as convoluted and convenient a story as you can get. Like the kids in The Christmas Chronicles, the boy and girl in this film are missing their father on Christmas Eve. But he’s not dead, he’s just left his family for booze and burglary. Of course, his family has come into an inheritance while he’s gone and moved into a mansion, which he happens to coincidentally rob the night before Christmas. He’s caught because like the kids in The Christmas Chronicles, the pair here set out to trap Santa and prove his existence. Nope, it’s just Dad trying to steal your toys!
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
If Santa Claus or Jesus Christ showed up in public claiming he is who he is, nobody would believe him. The police would lock him up, even, for seeming to be a delusional nutjob. We see it happen for comedy’s sake in The Christmas Chronicles, with restaurant patrons and cops alike not buying that St. Nick is really wandering around Chicago looking for his lost reindeer. And of course, he does land in jail. If his elves had never shown up to bust him out, Russell’s Santa might have had to try to prove his identity in court the way Kris Kringle does in the Capra-esque classic Miracle on 34th Street after he’s sent away to a hospital for the insane. The story told in the holiday favorite is no nice the Academy awarded it twice, as back then there were three writing categories at the Oscars.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
When it comes to badass Santas, there have been a couple played by professional wrestlers, and a couple cheesy old sci-fi B movies where St. Nick battles either Satan or aliens. In the 1959 Mexican film Santa Claus, the title character comes from outer space and, with help from Merlin the Wizard and the Roman god Vulcan, must face off against a demon from Hell sent to ruin Christmas. It’s not as great as it sounds, but it is a fun watch nonetheless. Same goes for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which was made famous through Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a little more relevant to The Christmas Chronicles since Santa is joined in his outer space encounter with Martians by two children, whose lives are also endangered as a result. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is also apparently the first movie to feature Mrs. Claus, who also shows up in the new movie.
It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)
It’s time to take a little break from just recommending Christmas movies for a showcase of film history, specifically the Russell/Hawn/Hudson family’s place therein. Because The Christmas Chronicles is a bit of a family project, with Russell starring and Hawn cameoing as Mrs. Claus and their son Oliver Hudson playing the dead dad (there are also Easter-egg nods to Russell and Hawn’s grandkids, including Kate Hudson’s sons Bing Bellamy and Ryder Robinson), it’s worth noting the movie where Russell and Hawn first met: Disney’s little-remembered musical The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, in which the former, a Mouse House movie staple, plays a member of the titiular group, and the latter made her brief, uncredited big screen debut (Russell and Hawn would later reunite in 1983 while making Swing Shift and also acted together in the original 1987 version of Overboard).
Going back five years (I know, I’m messing up my usual adherence to chronology by putting highlighting a 1963 movie after a 1964 movie), Russell made his own feature film debut in the Elvis Presley vehicle It Happened at the World’s Fair, a Seattle Expo-set musical that seems to have had a major influence on or at least connection to the actor’s career. After playing “boy who kicks Elvis’ shins” here, Russell would go on to portray Presley in a 1979 TV movie biopic that helped launch him as a serious screen actor. He also voiced the part of Elvis in Forrest Gump. Now, in The Christmas Chronicles, he pays further homage to the King of Rock and Roll in his jailhouse rocking performance of “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” which is a holiday tune traditionally associated with Elvis.
The Christmas Coal Mine Miracle (1978)
The Christmas Chronicles isn’t Russell’s first Christmas movie. Right before making waves in Elvis, the actor starred in this other TV movie based on a true story. You won’t find Santa in The Christmas Coal Mine Miracle (aka Christmas Miracle in Caufield, U.S.A.), which is inspired by the deadly West Frankfort, Illinois, coal mine explosion that killed 119 men on Christmas Eve in 1951. Here, thanks to Russell’s miner character going up against the owner of the mine regarding the health and safety of the workers, everyone survives and lives happily ever after. Truly a revisionist Christmas miracle, indeed!
Gremlins (1984) and Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
If The Christmas Chronicles feels like a mashup of Gremlins and Adventures in Babysitting, that’s probably because the former was scripted and the latter was directed by Chris Columbus, who just so happens to be the producer of the new Netflix holiday movie. Adventures in Babysitting is the one of the two most cited by critics and fans alike, mainly because both that and The Christmas Chronicles involve a late night odyssey with an older brother and little sister getting into trouble in Chicago. Both movies have someone singing the blues, both movies feature car thieves, and both movies’ kids are a bit edgier than what we’re used to in family films today.
If The Christmas Chronicles is just Adventures in Babysitting as a Christmas movie, it’s also a family film that depicts Santa’s elves as a bunch of Gremlins. Or Mogwai. Just like Gizmo in Gremlins, they’re cute and fuzzy and do a little dance (Gizmo totally would have flossed, too). The scene where the elves attack the gang of grinches (what kind of criminal organization steals sacks of presents on Christmas Eve?), they need to be doing more Looney Tunes shenanigans, a la the Gremlins in the bar scene. Don’t show this one to the kids after watching The Christmas Chronicles, even though it’s also rated PG. While the new movie reinforces the myth of Santa Claus (except he’s not fat and doesn’t say “ho, ho, ho”), Gremlins will ruin any child’s belief in the man in red with Phoebe Cates’ tale of family tragedy.
Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
I’m out of chronological order again, this time to recognize a holiday favorite of mine if no one else’s. Santa Claus: The Movie is notorious for its being an attempt by producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler to do for St. Nick what they did for Superman. It’s also known for unfortunately featuring a badly cast Dudley Moore as an unpleasant elf. Otherwise, this film is great. Or at least somewhat enjoyable? You’ve got The Big Lebowski himself, David Huddleston as one of the greatest screen Santas of all time, seriously — and like Russell’s Santa, he allows a hooligan kid in his sleigh for the night. Then there’s John Lithgow in a wonderfully hammy performance as a villainous toy company tycoon who wants to corner the market on Christmas presents. For something even cheesier, you can always also watch 2013’s A Country Christmas, where Kevin Pollak plays a villainous politician who wants to ban Santa, while at the same time Santa is grounded and losing his powers, a la Russell’s St. Nick in the new movie.
Captain Ron (1992)
I make no argument that Captain Ron is a good movie. But I also don’t think The Christmas Chronicles is good, either. If you do think the new movie is enjoyable, though, you’ll probably also enjoy Captain Ron and particularly Russell’s performance as the title character. The eye-patch-wearing sailor, who badly navigates a yacht with Martin Short and family, is the Russell character I kept thinking of as most similar to his somewhat obnoxious version of Santa. There’s a fan theory based on the ending that Ron is a con man who feigned the whole personality we see in the movie. And now the fan theory is being extended to claim that Russell’s Santa is the same character. Was he always Santa or is Santa a con man or was this Santa not really Santa at all?
I Am Santa Claus (2014)
Speaking of pretending to be Santa, this week’s documentary selection is one of the 12 noteworthy nonfiction holiday films (previously all highlighted on Nonfics) and one of two about guys who play Santa during the Christmas season (the other is the charming Becoming Santa). Despite the name, these aren’t people who make a claim to be the real Santa, but they are men who wish they could be at least a pretend Santa all year long. But since they can’t, we see what they do the rest of the time, whether it’s starting a BBQ joint o leading a sex club. The doc is produced by pro wrestler Mick Foley, who also suits up as Santa on screen.