Review: Eddie Murphy, Tracee Ellis Ross get busy around the holidays in ‘Candy Cane Lane’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Candy Cane Lane' (Part 1)
"Candy Cane Lane" is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video (Claudette Barius/Prime)

Did you already see Lil Rel Howery and Ludacris in “Dashing Through the Snow” on Disney+? Are you now looking for another new holiday flick to watch as we sled into December?

On Friday, Amazon Prime Video drops the new Christmas comedy “Candy Cane Lane,” a film that packs one too many creative ideas inside its zany wrapping paper, but also one that delivers a beloved cast and an overwhelming amount of magic that your kids might like even if parents check out during this family flick by the fireplace.

Set in El Segundo, California, the story follows festive father Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy), who loses his job during end-of-the-year layoffs. He hopes it won’t ruin Christmas for his wife Carol (Tracee Ellis Ross) and three kids, Joy (Genneya Walton), Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson) and Holly (Madison Thomas), so he makes a deal with a mysterious stranger, Pepper (Jillian Bell), to magically help him win $100,000 in a neighborhood lighting contest.

Since his Kennedy Center Honor in 2015, Eddie Murphy has largely avoided the spotlight despite the occasional award contender like “Dolemite is My Name” (2019). It’s been oddly comforting to see him return to lowbrow comedies, for better (“You People”) and for worse (“Coming 2 America”). At least he’s back in the mainstream eye, “primed” to reunite with his “Boomerang” (1992) director Reginald Hudlin once again here for popcorn laughs.

“Candy Cane Lane” is nowhere near as groundbreaking as “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984) or “Coming to America” (1988), not as laugh-out-loud funny as “The Nutty Professor” (1996) or “Life” (1999), and won’t change pop culture like “Shrek” (2001). Still, it’s quite fun watching him play off Tracee Ellis Ross, the gifted comedian of the TV sitcoms “Girlfriends” (2000–2008) and “Black-ish” (2014–2022) together in their first-ever Christmas comedy.

Relishing her turn as the evil elf antagonist is Jillian Bell, who became a streaming favorite in “Brittany Runs a Marathon” (2019) also on Prime. Her wholesome fans may be shocked to hear her say that “money is the reason for the season,” scoffing at religion with a “J.C.” pejorative, but don’t bail too soon. Such lines aren’t for blasphemy; they’re to establish that she’s actually the bad guy here making Murphy sign a proverbial deal with the devil.

It’s here that Kelly Younger’s script veers into magical realism, unleashing holy hell with the most diabolical “12 Days of Christmas” tree you’ve ever seen (the opposite of the two turtle doves in “Home Alone 2”). This path isn’t what we expect from the initial setup, which sounds like those great annual “Home Improvement” decorating duels between Tim Taylor vs. Doc Johnson: “There’s nothing more important than a family’s lighting strategy!”

Instead of Clark Griswold stringing lights, nailing his coat to the gutter and falling off ladders in John Hughes’ timeless script for “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989), “Candy Cane Lane” takes a hard right turn into “Jumanji” (1995) territory with the family chasing after five golden rings, dodging eggs from six geese a laying, answering prank phone dials from four calling birds, and battling ten lords a leaping at the daughter’s track meet.

Quick side note: why is she running track in the winter? Is it a Southern California thing? This scene sticks out for non-holiday action clearly meant for younger audiences. After the daughter successfully catches one of the five golden rings, we cut to the next scene of the happy family walking away as the youngest daughter repeats to her sister, “You did it! You got the ring!” Adults will say, “Yes, we know,” but kids need these sort of plot reminders.

Thus, your enjoyment depends on your tolerance of nuance vs. broad comedy. Personally, I felt the stakes were already high enough with Murphy being laid off at the holidays, needing to win the $100,000 lighting competition to give his family one last good Christmas before his daughter goes off to college. We didn’t really need the supernatural threat of him turning into a tiny Christmas village figurine, but this is a movie overflowing with ideas.

At least the figurines are funny with Nick Offerman (“Parks and Rec”) as Pip, Chris Redd (“Saturday Night Live”) as Lamplighter Gary and Robin Thede (“A Black Lady Sketch Show”) as Cordelia. They can’t help bursting into song like Roger Rabbit unable to resist Christopher Lloyd’s “shave and a haircut” in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988), all while hoping to transform back into real people like the objects in “Beauty and the Beast” (1991).

In the end, there’s a lot more going on here than the promise of the premise. Rather than a few thoughtful gifts, Santa’s bag is packed to the brim with tons of shiny presents, some on your list, many superfluous. We’re all busy around the holidays, but this movie is even busier. Still, as you gaze at the piles of wrapping paper strewn about the floor, you’ll give an exhausted smile knowing you’re at least surrounded by your loved ones on the couch.

2.5 stars

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Candy Cane Lane' (Part 2)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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