For a child on Christmas morning, there’s no disappointment greater than ripping the paper off a present to find that Mom and Dad skimped on quality control – a wish for the latest MP3 player granted as a brandless kidney bean capable of holding a total of 16 songs, or a SpongeBob plushie labeled “Rectangle Friend” with one eye pointing the wrong way due to substandard Taiwanese assembly. It’s what the kid asked for, technically, and yet an essential quality of authenticity has been lost somewhere along the way. Something just ain’t right.
That’s the prevailing feeling experienced by viewers of Dashing Through the Snow, a family comedy kicked around Disney for six years with Kevin Hart attached until he was swapped out for Lil Rel Howery and the project was remanded to the streaming hinterlands of Disney+. As a series of images played at high speed to simulate motion, this low-effort non-romp does indeed qualify as a movie in the strictest definitional sense, but it’s missing some crucial semblance of realness. One gets the occasional inkling that an important scene has been clipped out and spackled over with dropped-in lines of dialogue recounting action we never saw, but should’ve. Or maybe that director Tim Story needed to do some reshooting, couldn’t get everyone in the cast back together, and stitched together over-the-shoulder shots with body doubles facing away from the camera. However things may have played out, the final product has the distinct yet difficult-to-pinpoint sham essence of a toy made with lead paint.
In a flashback prologue, a young child tells a mall Santa about his father walking out, which the hourly Kris Kringle seizes as an opportunity for attempted petty larceny ending in a vicious beatdown at the hands of Mom’s new boyfriend. Flash forward to today, and the grown Eddie (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) harbors a rather Scroogelike disposition toward the holiday season, though he’s all peace on Earth and goodwill toward men in his capacity as a social worker and loving father to Charlotte (Madison Skye Validum). Reintroduced pep-talking a would-be suicide jumper into backing down through a shared fondness for red potatoes, he makes for a cuddly protagonist befitting a wad of kiddie fluff in which Santa’s farts smell like cinnamon. It’s possible that Bridges has, at one time or another, said “gracias” to the waiter at a Mexican restaurant or gone in for a handshake when the other guy went for a fist bump. But as far as what’s publicly known, this is the uncoolest thing he’s ever done.
All the same, he puts on a professional face for a gig unable to muster the baseline competence to meet him halfway. Same goes for Howery, improvising as hard as he possibly can to enliven his scenes as none other than Nick Sinterklaas, the man in the red suit himself. With a chirpy Charlotte in tow, he and a skeptical if accommodating Eddie team up to – and here’s where things start to get fuzzy – expose a bribery scheme involving a local congressman (Oscar Nuñez) and his goons (Mary Lynn Raskjub, Marcus Lewis and Ravi Patel). There’s an incriminating iPad that suddenly comes into Nick’s possession with a dashed-off explanation referring to events we aren’t shown until much later in the film, when they’re treated as a twist despite having been alluded to already. It doesn’t really add up, nor do Nick’s powers, which work as functional omniscience when convenient and halt at arbitrary limits when called for by the meandering wild-night-out plotting.
This rock-hard fruitcake is not without its nuggets of intrigue: a rousing musical number to rival Kurt Russell’s jailhouse rock in The Christmas Chronicles, Kevin “E from Entourage” Connolly as a top-hatted steampunk elf, a climactic fight featuring janky CGI reindeer and effortful reaction shots epitomizing the “we’ll just figure it out in post” mindset. But they’re all wedged in a shoddily misassembled sop to parents hard up for time-killers during school break, an insipid phone-in with no deeper insight about the meaning of yuletide than “it is good and everyone should believe in its magic.” (Yes, Luda, there is a Santa Claus.) Like so many straight-to-the-bin seasonal novelties coasting on lazy sentimentality, their mawkishness ultimately gives cover to a cynicism of slackened standards and paths of least resistance. In film-making as in gift-giving, it’s the thought that counts, and there’s not much to go around in here.