Netflix's Holiday Cinematic Universe Is (Mostly) as Batty as Ever
We're assessing the streaming service's current Christmas slate, which includes Brooke Shields buying a castle and Vanessa Hudgens playing three characters in one movie.
During the opening scenes of Netflix’s new holiday rom-com A Castle for Christmas, I felt a flicker of hope for the ensuing hour and 35 minutes of my life. Author Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields, tall and ravishing in a red power suit and matching bold lip) is sitting on the Drew Barrymore Show couch, enduring a series of weirdly invasive questions about why she killed off the romantic hero of her hit 11-book series—because of the personal pain of her own recent divorce, perhaps?—when she simply snaps.
“You should be happy that it was a quick death,” she snarls at the audience. “Yeah. Because I could have extended it for 10 pages! I could have dragged him behind a car! I could have poisoned him with mercury! I could have chopped him into little tiny pieces and fed him to the sharks!” (Winston, her fans’ erstwhile dream man, died mercifully by falling down the stairs.)
Despite the trite, made-for-TV concept and staid aesthetic of this Shields-Cary Elwes vehicle, I thought, At least it wasn’t playing it safe. An hour and a half of Brooke Shields manically chewing the scenery? Sure, sign me up.
But this is, tragically, the last weird thing to happen in the movie, the next 1.5 hours of which are as bland as a saltine cracker. To escape her furious fans, Sophie heads to Scotland and tries to buy Dun Dunbar, a fictional castle where her father’s family used to be employed, from its cranky but beigely handsome owner Duke Myles (Elwes). Through an endless succession of dull scenes, in which both Shields and Elwes barely seem to be attempting to act (save for his ill-studied approximation of a Scottish accent), the couple bangs out a real estate deal, rejuvenates the duchy, and falls in love. In her free moments, Sophie also learns to knit, personally gives a full haircut and color to all of her new friends in town, and—damn, I already forgot everything else that happens in this movie.
A Castle for Christmas is distressingly monotonous, but not unusually so for a holiday romance. With its basic tropes, limp sexual chemistry, and underspiced narrative, it would slot easily into the lineup at the Hallmark Channel, where Christmas treacle is the primary business model.
Netflix's original content ranges from bland, space-filling interior-decor docuseries to the kind of ambitious films that would traditionally have had big theatrical releases. When it comes to its holiday movies, Netflix doesn’t want to release the equivalent of three dozen Big Macs. Instead, each movie has its own unique niche, its own eye-catching star or off-the-wall concept; each one is designed to stand out as much as it’s designed to blend in. It’s elevated but still bountiful, fun, no-fuss. It’s the fast-casual of holiday entertainment.
Hallmark, on the other hand, pulls its big red lever every holiday season and releases a torrential flood—41 new films in 2021 alone, across its two cable channels. Hallmark and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries emit a steady blast of 90-minute jingle-bell schmaltz from late October to December 31st, wallpapering homes across America with reliably mediocre, factory-assembled romances set at small-town farms and festivals that all face destruction at the hands of rapacious developers.
And so Netflix’s holiday slate this year brings us not just a straight-faced Hallmark rip-off, but a clutch of kitschy or zhuzhed-up spins on the cable genre (Love Hard, Single All the Way, Christmas Switch 3: Romancing the Star, A Naija Christmas), as well as sharper-edged family sagas (Father Christmas Is Back, Grumpy Christmas) and fantasy adventure flicks (The Claus Family, A Boy Called Christmas).
Where Hallmark aims for bottomless uniformity, Netflix tries to combine bottomlessness with an algorithm-attuned variety: a Christmas movie to watch if you like strong female leads, feel-good romances, Harry Potter, family comedies, grumpy old men, TikToks in which comedians do direct-to-camera impersonations of 14 celebrities in a row.
For years, this type of televised Christmas cheese (also found on Lifetime and sprinkled across a handful of other female-focused cable channels) existed in another universe from theatrically released holiday movies, with their bigger budgets, bigger stars, bigger concepts, and bigger ambitions. But while Netflix also makes an endless churn of content for half-watching while you knit or scroll through Instagram, Netflix wants more. Netflix wants to have it all.
A Boy Called Christmas, a fantasy story about the origins of Santa Claus and his trusty elves, leans heavily into its The-Boy-Who-Lived target demo—a haunting, minor-key orchestral theme swirling over opening scenes of Maggie Smith striding through snowy London streets; an orphaned boy (in long-ago Norway) with the courage and destiny to defeat evil and reinstate good; helpful elves who end up voluntarily enslaving themselves to human service.
A running theme is, by some coincidence, characters named “Christmas” or “Claus.” There’s also The Claus Family, a reasonably charming Dutch-Belgian film about a half-orphaned boy who discovers that his late father left him next in line to be, well, Santa Claus. The most baffling of the 2021 holiday slate, Father Christmas Is Back, features Kelsey Grammer as the onetime patriarch of the Christmas family. Years after he walked out on his wife and four daughters on Christmas Day, he suddenly returns to England from his new home in Florida (standard-issue ditzy blond girlfriend in tow) to make amends. It is a comedy, though in lieu of jokes we are mostly offered antic squeaks from prudish middle daughter Caroline Christmas-Hope (Nathalie Cox) and the existence of another, Paulina (Naomi Frederick), who has been writing her Ph.D. thesis about The Beatles for a decade and appears to be cosplaying as one. Most disappointingly of all, the central question at the heart of Father Christmas Is Back is a thin antifeminist cliché: What if a father abandoned his children for decades, but it was actually their mother’s fault?
Netflix doesn’t just want a smattering of individual films, however. It wants in on the extended cinematic universe, the foundation upon which comic-book movies have grown into sprawling, industry-dominating franchises. Two of the platform’s most irresistibly tacky original holiday rom-coms, A Christmas Prince and The Princess Switch, not only became multi-film franchises, but they became entangled in a web of winky references.
This year, Netflix released an infographic elucidating that movies like the entire Princess Switch franchise and 2021’s A Castle for Christmas are part of a “Netflix Holiday Universe.” Some films feature characters curling up to watch other Netflix movies, in a bit of explicit advertising, while others send minor characters over as emissaries to hint that two fictional European countries exist in the same world. (Confusingly, The Princess Switch appears on a TV in A Christmas Prince, but Queen Amber and King Richard later make an appearance in The Princess Switch 2, hinting that The Princess Switch was somehow both a movie and a real-life event in the world of A Christmas Prince.)
In this cinematic universe, however, live the platform’s most appealingly unhinged offerings. The Christmas Switch 3: Romancing the Star—in which Vanessa Hudgens plays three (3!) characters: Stacy, an American baker who married a prince; Margaret, a European aristocrat recently crowned queen of a small country; and Margaret’s scheming cousin Fiona—the flimsy heist-based plot is nothing more than an excuse for a batshit meta-exercise that tests Hudgens’ acting skills. It’s a bold move to put this much weight on one actor’s chops, especially when that actor is as unexceptional as Hudgens, but her efforts are at least gratifyingly insane to watch.
Love Hard tries valiantly to make catfishing romantic, featuring Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang as Josh, a downtrodden but sweet guy who resorts to using his hot friend’s photos in order to gain some interest on dating apps. Nina Dobrev plays Natalie, the hot L.A. writer who impulsively flies cross-country to visit him for Christmas after they begin an online flirtation, hoping to finally have a dramatic success story to share in her dating column. The pair have minimal chemistry, and their distinctive traits are as follows: her, kiwi allergy; him, a hidden talent for making scented candles for men. A scene in which Natalie accidentally consumes a shot with kiwi juice before performing a sexy karaoke number (Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love”) could have been ripped from a frat comedy 20 years ago; suffice it to say that her only real reaction to the allergen is to develop massive facial swelling.
Most successful at threading the needle of making the formula pop without fully going off the rails are Single All the Way and A Naija Christmas. In the former, Netflix’s first gay holiday romance, Peter (Michael Urie) brings his platonic roommate Nick (Philemon Chambers) home for Christmas, unable to face another holiday season as the sad, perennially uncoupled adult child. Though he begins to date a local hottie (Luke Macfarlane) and contemplate moving back home to be near his family and new himbo love interest, long-suppressed feelings between the two roommates become impossible to ignore as they realize how well Nick fits into Peter’s life and family.
In the latter, a family saga/rom-com about the three feckless sons of a Nigerian matriarch (played by the late Rachel Oniga) desperate for her first grandchildren, the three men scramble to be the first to get married in order to snag the prize she’s dangled: their childhood home. Ugo (Kunle Remi), a playboy music producer in deep trouble with a loan shark, tries to win over a churchgoing singer who his mother would consider wife material; Obi (Efa Iwara) wavers between winning back his gorgeous but cold ex, who dumped him during a public proposal that went viral, and falling for his long-time friend. It’s good fun, at times even rather romantic (by the abysmal standards of the genre), and the action culminates at an over-the-top outdoor Christmas party: everything, in short, that a holiday rom-com should be.