Prolific Atlanta producer Will Packer had already produced two Christmas family movies over the years: “This Christmas” in 2007 and “Almost Christmas” in 2016.
Last year, Disney was seeking help developing a kids-oriented Christmas film and called Packer for help. He has been brought in before mid-project to shepherd through previous films such as “Ride Along” and “Straight Outta Compton.”
“People usually call me to add some flavor,” Packer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week at the Four Seasons in Midtown. “I felt like this was an opportunity. I thought it had tremendous potential, about a dad who is rejecting the notion of Christmas and has to remember what’s important. I jumped at the chance.”
The result is “Dashing Through the Snow,” a comedy starring Lil Rel Howery and Atlanta’s own Chris “Ludacris” Bridges out Nov. 17 on Disney+. It tries to capture elements of classic films like “Home Alone,” “Elf” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Ludacris, best known for his vast library of hip-hop hits and his role in the enduring “Fast & Furious” franchise, plays Eddie, an earnest Atlanta social worker and father of eight-year-old daughter Charlie (Madison Skye Validum) who loves Christmas. Eddie unfortunately bears scars from a Christmas-related childhood trauma that makes him a bit of a Scrooge.
“Luda and I have been talking about working together for awhile,” Packer said. “He’s my guy. We’ve been very, very close friends. I admire his work ethic and skill set as a multi-hyphenate performer but very specifically as an actor. He came in on time, prepared, ready. That is his reputation that precedes him. It was a joy to work with Chris. You really believe him as a dad who has some angst.”
Amid car chases through downtown Atlanta, “Entourage” actor Kevin Connolly channeling his inner Willy Wonka, oodles of glitter sweat and an “Office” alum (Oscar Nuñez) playing a corrupt politician, Packer decided to cast a Black Santa in the form of 43-year-old Lil Rel Howery. Packer had previously given Howery a smaller role in 2020′s “The Photograph.”
“I thought he would be great because he has such a whimsical nature on the screen,” Packer said. “Santa has a glint in his eye, which I love because kids respond to that. That glint says it’s going to be fun, something magical. He has that type of persona on screen.”
One notable trademark of Howery’s version of Santa is his Oreo-like black-and-white beard, which is directly addressed in the movie. “We wanted Santa to have a little flavor and swag because it’s a Lil Rel Santa,” Packer said. “This is not your granddad’s Santa. That beard is part of that swaggy feel.”
The film focuses around Eddie trying to help Howery’s Santa, thinking he’s a delusional mentally ill person, not actually St. Nick. In the meantime, a set of bad guys are chasing Santa down for an errant iPad.
Credit: Steve Dietl
Credit: Steve Dietl
This is the first time Packer has done a Disney movie and he was given a generous budget to make it happen. “It was exciting,” he said. “Disney is a global brand. They’re known for doing things at the epitome of quality. We knew we had to live up to that standard. They gave us the tools that we needed.”
Indeed, Packer’s favorite scene focuses on peeved, realistically rendered Santa reindeer taking down the bad guys.
“I just love this idea where you get to see the reindeers kick some butt,” he said.
In all, this was very much a movie set in Atlanta. “It’s fun to shoot Atlanta for Atlanta,” Packer said. “When my Atlanta folks see the movie, they’ll smile and recognize places.” Among the most obvious backdrops for long-time locals: the High Museum of Art and the exterior of the former Rich’s department store downtown.
And as is often the case, this movie may have been fictionally at Christmas but was actually shot in August and September of 2022 when daily high temperatures often exceeded 85 degrees.
“You can’t control when you shoot largely,” Packer said. “You have to shoot when the actors are available, the script is ready and you have the green light. Things are constantly changing in this industry.”
Packer had nothing but the deepest respect for Howery, who wore a heavy Santa suit the entire movie sweating buckets.
“I have a scene as an extra,” said Packer, pulling a Hitchcock-like cameo. “I put on the Santa suit for fun. It was so hot and unbearable for a five-minute scene. Rel is a trooper. He did what he needed to do for the movie.”
IF YOU WATCH
“Dashing Through the Snow,” available Nov. 17 on Disney+
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.