Lifetime’s Santa Bootcamp brings a magical, legendary, larger-than-life personality to the small screen this holiday season: Rita Moreno. Oh — and there’s lots of Santas-in-training too, including Emily Kinney and Justin Gaston. But will this Christmas movie make you stand at attention or does it deserve a court martial?
The Gist: Emily Kinney (The Walking Dead) stars as Emily Strauss, an event planner who just scored her big break: organizing the Christmas extravaganza for Ed Mancini of Mancini Malls. Tasked with finding the best Santa that Los Angeles has to offer, she drops by Santa Bootcamp — which trains people to be department store Santas and holly jolly characters for hire. The program is run by the delightful yet enigmatic Belle (EGOT and GOAT Rita Moreno), and Emily hopes Belle will recommend a Santa for the event. Belle has something different in mind, though: she drafts Emily into the bootcamp and pairs her with a Santa-in-training, a hunky chef named Aiden (Justin Gaston). But, uh, what about the big event? Ed Mancini is all flash and no cheer, and he’s not gonna go for whatever seasonal sentiment Belle and her jovial, bearded husband (John Schuck) are peddling inside a rented mansion in Pasadena! Will Emily pull off the event of her fledgling career, or will she be totally distracted by Belle’s bootcamp?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Santa Bootcamp feels like a throwback to all of the holiday movies from 10-20 years ago, the ones that were made before the formula was codified, back when there was still a bit of literal magic to these stories. The Mistle-Tones, Holiday in Handcuffs, 12 Dates of Christmas, that one where Tom Cavanagh was Santa Claus — Santa Bootcamp would fit right. That makes sense, considering that Santa Bootcamp comes from director Melissa Joan Hart, an actor who was very much part of that era.
Performance Worth Watching: I was absolutely delighted to see John Schuck as Rita Moreno’s husband Chris. Of course I remember him best as Gil Kessler on Golden Girls, but the guy was all over TV in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. He was Herman Munster on The Munsters Today! He did episodes of M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore! Pairing him with Rita Moreno as the film’s magical lead couple was an inspired choice.
Memorable Dialogue: Here’s Belle giving one Christmas cadet a heads up: “Have you ever thought about what it’s like to be inside a polyester, unventilated, candy cane suit for 8 hours? You’re about to find out.”
A Holiday Tradition: Ed Mancini no doubt throws a holiday party every year, each one being bigger than the previous. Would his ego settle for anything less? And it seems like Belle and Chris set up a Santa Bootcamp somewhere every holiday season, which begs the question — is this a franchise, Lifetime?
Two Turtle Doves: In UPtv’s Christmas on the Rocks (Dec. 4), an event planner has their work cut out for them when their corporate holiday party gets ruined by a snowstorm. I’m stretching with this one, because there really is nothing else like Santa Bootcamp this holiday season… or any holiday season.
Does the Title Make Any Sense?: I actually cannot think of any other title that would work for this film. They nailed it! No notes!
Our Take: Y’know, you read the title “Santa Bootcamp” and you don’t expect much. Even though it’s got a quirky ring to it, it’s still a straightforward title with nary a pun. Where’s the magic? But don’t let the title fool you, because Santa Bootcamp is something special this holiday season. There’s a sentence I did not think I’d be typing this morning but, here we are.
Santa Bootcamp starts out adhering to the tried and true holiday romcom formula. Emily is a Type-A event planner who’s overworked and will do anything to succeed in business, because she is really trying. She gets paired up with a super hot chef, a guy she low-key insulted by accident upon their first encounter. You think you know where the movie’s going after a half hour, but it every-so-slightly drifts away from the formula and ventures into someplace unexpected. It’s not like it becomes Full Metal Jacket or something. This is a Lifetime movie. Instead of sticking to the predictable plot that we all know, the movie shifts its focus towards Emily as a character and focuses on her arc. What does she want out of Christmas, a career, her life? The real conflict isn’t between Emily and Aiden or even Emily and drill sergeant Belle; it’s all Emily.
That is, of course, a very serious reading of a film titled Santa Bootcamp, a film that mostly takes place in one McMansion and at one point prominently displays a workout video in Belle’s gift area titled Eat Like an Elf, Fly Like a Reindeer. This movie is still deeply silly, to the point where you could imagine every character being replaced by a stop-motion puppet.
Still, the movie’s spectacular ensemble elevates the material — material that’s perfectly pleasant, but could veer into grating in the hands of less seasoned performers. Kinney is adorable and awkward but so sincere and sweet. Marissa Jaret Winokur is unstoppable as the permanently plucky Patti. And then there’s Rita Moreno, who doesn’t just turn in a mere cameo so Lifetime can put her on all the advertisements. She’s fully part of this movie, from beginning to end, and she’s just… well, she’s Rita Moreno. I fully buy her as a timeless holiday guru who inspires devotion and adoration everywhere she goes.
Santa Bootcamp is by no means a perfect holiday movie, but it offers a bit of silly, heartfelt entertainment and a dash of magic.
Our Call: STREAM IT. They just don’t make’em like this anymore.
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