Candy Cane Lane can only squeeze a small amount of decent comedy from its awkward directing and flimsy writing, making for a stale holiday treat.
Well, now that Thanksgiving is over, it’s time to start celebrating the most popular holiday of the year! My holiday’s off to a rough start for a few reasons, one of which is that I kicked it off with Candy Cane Lane. This new Christmas comedy stars Eddie Murphy as family man Chris, who is laid off from his job right before Christmas … something that I may or may not have fresh experience with, but that’s besides the point. Wanting win the cash prize of his neighborhood’s Christmas decorating contest, he buys an elaborate 12 Days of Christmas tree from the mysterious store elf Pepper (Jillian Bell), only for the ornaments to come to life. It turns out Pepper is an actual evil elf who’s cursed him, and Chris must now recover the golden rings of the famous song or he’ll live his life as a Christmas village decoration.
I’m going to be very honest: when I chose to watch this movie, I was expecting and even kind of hoping to see holiday trash. Something to cozy up with in the cold air while munching on popcorn out of a holiday-themed bowl. And that’s what I got … but I should’ve specified that I wanted the film to not be boring. Candy Cane Lane feels like a film ripped straight out of the late 90s and early 2000s. I should know, because that’s when I was a kid and watched this exact type of bad live-action comedy on repeat and instantly forgot them until my next viewing. I was weaned off of Kangaroo Jack and the Garfield movie, for Krampus’s sake; this was 10-year-old Joe’s soggy bread and butter!
I guess in that sense, the film was a bit nostalgic. But though most studios would like to think otherwise, nostalgic doesn’t mean good, and Candy Cane Lane is far from good. I knew the film was in trouble very early on when some drawn-out, unfunny banter started up through unremarkably framed shots, after an obligatory generic holiday pop song opened the film up (though Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” plays soon after and that forgives everything). This leads us into dialogue between Chris and his family that could not have advertised everyone’s arcs more if they’d put a big neon sign on their chimney flashing the morals to us. Even the editing is occasionally jarring when it choppily cuts to right in the middle of a scene as if some of the footage just went missing.
No actor in Candy Cane Lane is bad, but almost no one’s really doing more than what the paint-by-numbers script needs them to do. Murphy’s acting is really toned down, his children are all passable but nothing more, and Tracee Ellis Ross’s energized performance as Chris’s wife can only do so much get something funny with her material. But I’ll admit that while these characters are weak on their own, the writing still makes them come across like a legitimate loving family. They have their spats like any family, but you never doubt that they’d go through life and limb to be there for one another.
Some of the previous customers who were turned into figurines also join the story, and while Nick Offerman and Robin Thede are fine as two of them, Chris Redd plays one and is saddled with the worst, most desperate humor in the film. The only actor who’s consistently fun to watch is Jillian Bell as the elf. She looks like she’s having the time of her life every second she’s on screen with her exaggerated movements and mugging. She’s like if one of the Hocus Pocus witches swapped holidays, and I’d honestly love to see a movie that’s just about her character screwing people over.
But that’s unfortunately not what we got here. Instead, Candy Cane Lane is a film with seeds of fun ideas that grow as successfully as actual seeds in the North Pole would. The idea of the 12 Days of Christmas icons coming to life and wreaking havoc could work in a more consistently high-energy, balls-to-the-wall comedy, maybe something animated that could really let all of the exaggerated sequences and storylines feel at home. But the awkward directing, style, and pacing don’t allow for much humor to come from any of these antics.
I remember thinking how quickly the film was going in the first act and wondering how it ends up two hours long. As it turns out, it does so by dragging its middle portion out. Once Chris’s mission gets going, I swear we must spend around twenty minutes just getting the rest of the family caught up. A bit of extra time is also spent trying to move along the obvious subplots and arcs that are just there to tag on some quick and easy morals. Even when something wacky is happening, it isn’t shot or edited in a funny way, and the climax in particular overstays its welcome. This is where the film tries to go for broke in terms of the craziness thrown at us, but it’s not fun stupid. It’s just … stupid stupid. As stupid as that description I just used. The climax is also where most of the shoddy CGI comes in, so that doesn’t help.
Even the lessons Chris is supposed to be learning – don’t be focused on competition, remember what’s most important in life, let your kids be who they want – aren’t really learned. He realizes them at the end, but there’s very little that actually gets him there outside of … well, the script says so. You’d think there would be something to chew on when he becomes obsessed with decorating his house for the competition, but he’s very quickly thrust into a situation where if he fails, he becomes a living doll. Unless there’s some Barbie-style paradise in which he can live his life and travel between dimensions, that’s its own high-stakes problem that takes priority.
I was worried that all these plot threads would lead to some big third-act blowup where everyone in the family gets mad at each other, but while that does happen, it’s thankfully very quick before they all come back together. I’ll give Candy Cane Lane credit for really abridging certain film clichés that typically bore me. It just doesn’t replace them with anything that interesting or fun, and the clichés that do stick around are handled very lazily, almost to a laughable degree.
I’ll be honest in saying that the first five or so minutes of Candy Cane Lane had me thinking the entire film was going to be a total disaster. But while it’s definitely a bad movie, it’s not one of the worst I’ve ever seen. A handful of jokes got a sizable laugh out of me (though far from the majority), and a few performances manage to have fun with what they’re given. But everything else is either something you’ve probably seen before or too blandly executed to get much joy from. I’ve got a soft spot for certain bad Christmas movies – last year’s A Christmas Karen is a so-bad-it’s-good treat for me – but not of this particular flavor.
Candy Cane Lane will be released on Prime Video from December 1, 2023.