Candy Cane Lane (2023)
By now, you should know what to expect from show business at this time of year. Every major entertainment company either is or has a streaming service. And every streaming service has at least one original holiday movie. Amazon MGM Studios has five such works debuting over the next two weeks. Not included among them is Red One, the Jake Kasdan-directed North Pole action-adventure flick for which producer/star Dwayne Johnson was paid a staggering $50 million. Strangely, there has been radio silence over what was hoped to have franchise potential. In that film’s absence, Amazon’s biggest Yuletide 2023 release is Candy Cane Lane, the first in the streamer’s three-picture deal with funnyman Eddie Murphy.
Reuniting with director Reginald Hudlin for the first time since 1992’s Boomerang, Murphy plays Chris Carver, the patriarch of a family of five whose Los Angeles neighborhood gets really invested in a Christmas decorating competition each year. Chris’ specialty is large wooden creations that he crafts and paints by hand. His old school approach, in contrast to the neighbors, has not won the Carvers many first prize ribbons. But this year has got to be different.
That’s because the Carvers’ street’s annual contest is being featured in a reality television show, where the winner will take home $100,000. The Carvers could really use that money because, unbeknownst to the kids, Chris has just unexpectedly lost his job.
In planning the family’s display, Chris and his youngest daughter stop by Kringle’s, a whimsical pop-up shop. There, they meet the unusual Pepper (Jillian Bell) and purchase an ornate decorative tree themed to the famous “12 Days of Christmas” carol.
What initially seems like just a special and costly addition that might just put the family’s lawn on top proves to be part of a risky contract Chris has signed without reading the fine print. It’s kind of like Deck the Halls meets The Santa Clause, with results more in line with the former.
Chris has to sort out the mess he’s in by Christmas Eve. Helping him out are a number of living miniature village figurines who themselves were previously swindled by Pepper. Most focal among these characters, who are brought to life creatively with stop motion animation reminiscent of Rankin-Bass specials, is a mutton-chopped Cockney bloke (Nick Offerman) who seems to have wandered out of a Charles Dickens novella.
Inevitably also along for the ride are the other Carvers, all of whom sport seasonal names and are given a supporting subplot. Wife Carol (Tracee Ellis Ross) is vying for a big promotion at her warehouse logistics job. Track star daughter Joy (Genneya Walton) is pursuing an athletic scholarship, but secretly from Notre Dame rather than her parents’ beloved alma mater USC. Son Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson) is failing math, having prioritized his musical ambitions.
The screenplay by Kelly Younger (Muppets Haunted Mansion) is chock-full of familiar family film tropes and devotes too much time to all of these banal threads. As a result, Candy Cane Lane runs nearly two hours and at least a half-hour longer than you’ll want it to. But its excesses were likely more noticeable to me, watching this on the big screen and trying not to take a bathroom break, than it will be to you, watching or half-watching this while online shopping, wrapping presents, or doing whatever it is you do around the holiday season.
Candy Cane Lane does deserve credit for putting in more effort than most of the movies it will be judged against, streaming service productions that clearly stay on the cheaper side of the frequently blurred television/film divide.
Murphy’s days as a marquee attraction may be behind him; his last big theatrical live-action movies (Tower Heist, Norbit) were over a decade ago. But he has adapted to the industry’s changing tides as well as anyone but Adam Sandler, winning critical raves on Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name and seemingly huge viewership numbers on Amazon’s sequel Coming 2 America. He remains charismatic and fit, somehow barely looking any older than he did in his earliest movie hits some forty years ago.
Literally, his first holiday movie Trading Places opened in June of 1983. Very few of that year’s leading actors (read: Harrison Ford) are still headlining major movies in 2023, and for Murphy to still be doing so after too many flops and Razzie Awards to count is nothing short of mind-blowing. Longevity like his is practically unprecedented, especially in comedy, where tastes change often and stars rarely stick around.
Having said that, I wish Candy Cane Lane was able to do more with and for its leading man than just put him at the center of increasingly inane shenanigans, which almost feel like they could have been lifted directly from uncrumpled pages of unproduced Santa Clause or Night at the Museum sequel scripts. At least the movie has enough sense not to subject Murphy to the since outdated fat suit and race transformation gags of some of his broadest/biggest hits of yore.
An impressive amount of recognizable talent is assembled around Murphy here, but they mostly get to settle for comedy crumbs as on-target gags get stretched out and the occasional displays of wit (e.g. a surprisingly clever triptych satire of three big box retailers), wordplay, and mathematics(!) get upstaged by dumb visual effects like CGI birds laying eggs from the sky.
As someone who loves this time of year, I always want Christmas movies to be good, but I know better than to expect that. For every Elf that holds up to yearly rewatches, there are about a hundred holiday movies that do not. A more attainable bar for success is a Christmas comedy that doesn’t have you cringing throughout. While Candy Cane Lane passes that test for some decent-sized stretches, it does inspire cringes every now and then, like a UNC recruiter gag popping up or some of the dumber bits Bell tries to sell. Still, I have no doubt that this will compare favorably to some of the other lowbrow holiday “treats” that streamers will drop from now until Christmas.
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- Now in theaters: The Boys in the Boat, Wonka, Wish, Napoleon, Hunger Games: Songbirds & Snakes, Trolls 3, Next Goal Wins.
- Now on home video, #1 movie of 2023: Barbie 4K reviewed.