Growing up, Noelle and Nick new what fates awaited them: Nick would take over his father’s role as Santa Claus, and Noelle’s job would be to support her brother and spread Christmas cheer. Sure it sounds awfully patriarchal, but do you think a Christmas movie has room to unpack that?
Spoiler alert: Santa dies (not to worry, off camera, nothing traumatic) and Nick, now an adult (Bill Hader), reluctantly dons the jolly red suit. He goes deep into training for his big night, learning the fireplace trick, and getting licensed to drive reindeer. But his heart’s not in it. When he confesses his ambivalence to sister Noelle (Anna Kendrick), she suggests he take a weekend away and come back refreshed. Except Nick doesn’t come back. Facing a ruined Christmas season, Noelle and her nanny Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine) follow him to Arizona to pull him away from his new life of yoga and enlightenment.
Never having left the North Pole, Noelle is a fish out of water. Not unlike Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf, there’s a lot of humour to be found in a true believer, a fully Chistmas-spirited weirdo finding her way in a world full of cynicism. The girl uses gingerbread-scented deodorant for Santa’s sake. The joy she radiates is a lot to take and though I am not a fan of Anna Kendrick, I admit she is probably perfectly cast in the role. But she doesn’t just excel at all things merry and bright, she tints it all with just a hint of oppressed anger.
Although I like the premise, I wish they’d taken it further. Maybe I wish it was a little less kid-friendly and embraced the acerbic edge it seems more suited to. I’d like to praise it for its feminist edge but it largely ignores it in order to keep the sleigh moving along with good tidings and cheer, plus I’d previously watched Santa Girl, also about a daughter of Santa’s, which tackles a concerning amount of the same material. And I’d like to praise it for avoiding the sappy romance, except it seems to go to a lot of trouble to set one up only to leave us unfulfilled in the end. Strange choices.
A Bill Hader as Santa movie should be a slam dunk. You have to take a lot of wrong turns to mess this one up, but unfortunately Noelle just isn’t my cup of cocoa.