Well, it’s Christmas time, which means that for about a month, everyone will be talking about increasingly terrible Christmas films. It’s already started on ABC Family, with their “25 days of Christmas.” For their first night, they showed that wonderful, life affirming classic that demonstrates togetherness for the holidays; Home Alone 2. The day they air Christmas with the Kranks or The Santa Clause (both coincidentally star former cocaine mule Tim Allen) is the day I will advocate that the FCC shut the network down. I would say that there has not been a halfway decent traditional Christmas film since, oh, 1983. There have been several great “ironic” Christmas films (like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Bad Santa) but after A Christmas Story, which was not expected to succeed. After that, Christmas films lost all thought, and became just another way for people to have metaphorical candy canes continues shoved up their metaphorical asses until New Years. Why put any effort into these films? Most people will go to see them anyway, following the Pavlovian response that also makes them hum the same Christmas carols year after year and act as though it has never been done before. Bah Humbug! I had to throw that in there somewhere.
Let’s look at the first big Christmas film that followed this formula and was, amazingly, wholly rejected by a public that today would make the same film break box office records: Santa Claus The Movie. The thought process behind it was simple – take the producers of the Superman franchise and have them essentially remake the first film with another magical western icon who can fly and spy on every citizen of the planet. They even hired Jeannot Szwarc, the guy who directed Supergirl. Everything about the film was crafted in the same manner as Superman. No expense was spared in making the myth of Santa seem as believable as possible. The tagline may as well have read “You WILL believe there is a morbidly obese man in a bad suit who can fly around the world and selflessly delivers toys that, despite having enough computer chips and circuitry in it to keep the Pentagon supplied for the next century, can be made with wooden hammers.” It was supposed to be a big ticket of 1985, but the public response was one of indifference.
The film is essentially split into two halves. The first half follows a medieval woodcutter (David Huddleston – he’s probably most famous for playing the wheel chair bound titular character in The Big Lebowski) who is famous in his village for delivering toys to all of the children. During one of these escapades, he gets lost in the forest and seemingly freezes to death. But he awakes at the north pole, where elves say they have been waiting for him. They turn this man into Santa Claus (Burgess Meredith is even trudged out to say the name in a hushed tone) and task him with delivering toys on a global scale. We get scenes about how Santa came up with the naughty and nice list and about how he became the established icon of Christmas. The second half takes place in the “present day.” Patch (Dudley Moore) leaves the North Pole after Santa Claus spurns his attempts at creating a modernized workshop. He hooks up with BZ (John Lithgow) who is the typical Gordon Gecko 80s industrialist. Patch makes BZ sweets that are capable of making the eater levitate, thus offering Santa his first ever competition. But the candy is dangerous and explodes when exposed to heat. BZ’s niece and her street urchin friend (who are so memorable I have forgotten their names and so relevant to the plot I am not going to bother looking them up) try to tell Santa of the dangers as BZ attempts to keep Patch in New York indefinitely.
The one question I had watching the film was “Why?” Why did a man go along with all of these plans to change his very identity? Why didn’t he pause to consider the consequences of immortality or even the fact that beings like elves existed and wanted to make him their god? For that matter, what motivation did the elves have for doing anything, beyond some “chosen one” prophecy? Say what you will about the dreadful The Santa Clause but at least that film had a human being acting with shock, awe, and doubt about what he was being tasked with. True, this man was “the first” but these were still questions worth exploring. The only time Santa acts human is with great offense when he reads “The Night Before Christmas” and hears his physique described “like a bowl full of jelly.” You would think that elves who are able to grant immortality would also be able to prevent aging, but apparently after centuries of life performing a task that is never defined or explained, Santa can only think of dieting. It would have been excellent to show the world’s first selfless being and explaining, perhaps, how Christmas brought that aspect out in him. Certainly it would have been better than throwing up a giant question mark and just saying “Oh, he’s Santa Claus. Come on, we have about an hour and a half to go and haven’t even gotten to John Lithgow chomping his cigar.”
If the film had wanted to be whimsical or comedic about the whole enterprise, I would have forgiven these lapses. But the film wants to be taken so seriously that it becomes absolutely silly. I liked and will defend Supergirl because that film was made with the tongue firmly in the cheek and had the sense to embrace the campy aspects of its source material. Santa Claus acts as though it wants to be a serious examination of Santa – but I have already demonstrated that it cannot possibly be such a film. It wanted to be like the original Superman – a film that is so believable that it does not wish to acknowledge the silliness of its own premise. Isn’t Christmas supposed to be fun? Not according to this film, which has Santa going into seasonal depression at the first sign of competition or in which a Dickensian orphan is bound and gagged in a basement.
Oh, the film LOOKS great. It is as professionally photographed as any other studio film and the design is fine. At least it does not rely on CGI, but the film is still just downright sterile. Putting sparkles on everything in sight does not mean that the film gains magic. Besides, that cannot make up for the film’s flaws. There are no characters, no arc, nothing that films are expected to have.
I will be honest – I still like Christmas. I love spending time with my family and an excuse to eat cookies. But I hate about how society essentially tries to reset its mind every year, going through the exact same motions of buying gifts and then going to theaters or turning on the TV bad films about how Christmas is not about consumerism (and spending nine dollars for the privilege to watch the film). Santa Claus: The Movie existed for that reason alone – to make as much money as possible off of people’s need to feel good around the holidays. It’s certainly not the worst of its kind, but it is just mediocre enough to have deserved its fate. Still, the mentality and effort that went into this piece is what studios now use in crafting fare like Fred Claus. For that reason, I suppose, this film is more important than it should be.