REVIEW: Santa Claus [1985]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 107 minutes | Release Date: November 27th, 1985 (USA)
Studio: TriStar Pictures
Director(s): Jeannot Szwarc
Writer(s): David Newman / David Newman & Leslie Newman (story)

“If you give bigger kisses you get better hugs”

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Films you remember watching so often in your youth begin to possess a certain aura of quality they can never come close to achieving otherwise. It happens most with holiday movies—Christmas especially. Memories of sitting around the television on Christmas Eve waiting for a night of sleigh-brought treasures with the family cultivate feelings of joy, happiness, and laughter. So when you start to equate those same feelings with the program you were watching at the time, the line between emotion and truth blurs. Sadly, for Jeannot Szqarc and David Newman‘s telling of the legend of Santa Claus, this couldn’t be truer.

Trying its best to give us a background into the creation of Santa himself, we begin the film in the fourteenth century as Uncle Claus (David Huddleston) and his wife Anya (Judy Cronwell) arrive in their village with carved wooden gifts for the children. A yearly tradition of selflessness and charity, the Clauses are beloved and made into folk legends everyone can count on. Due to the season and the inclement weather of their home, however, this genesis story makes way for a tragedy glossed over in such a way that it confuses as to why the filmmakers even went this route. Rather than have the elf kingdom that has long held a prophecy of finding someone worthy of taking the mantle of Santa, we must first watch the Clauses freeze to death in the snow with reindeer Donner and Blitzen.

This device confuses because you start to wonder whether anything happening after the storm is real, a heavenly fantasy, or a coma-induced vision. Why must we kill them to watch them be reborn, though? It ends up making what should be a magical moment of opportunity into murder. For all we know the elves caused the storm and in effect kidnapped these kindly souls to be slaves to their religion of good will towards men—a contradiction if I’ve ever seen one. Luckily for Claus, the declarations of an ancient elf (Burgess Meredith) are all that’s needed to assuage his worry. Learning of the responsibility before him and seeing his new co-workers in their element—Patch (Dudley Moore) helps revive Claus’s reindeer and assimilate them with the rest of the North Pole stable—the newly anointed Santa is ready to begin his eternal life.

Spanning almost an hour of screen time—half the movie—we watch as the centuries pass and the world continues to believe and cherish this jolly old man in beard and red suit. Poems are written, cookies are left, and as the population grows so does his reach. A long-winded sequence of exposition, we begin to believe the entire film will deal solely with these icons as they adjust with the time and magically bring hope to those less fortunate. But once Santa discovers his need for an assistant, everything changes view and it’s Patch who becomes the star. An entire act is subverted and the questions of authenticity are rendered moot as the elf enters the real world. So, we just watched an entire story progress setting up a North Pole toy factory with Santa at the helm only to find the real plot of the film rested with Patch against the greed of corporate America.

A schizophrenic script to be sure, this second half always stayed with me. Looking back, I had no idea how long the start was or how unnecessary. When you name a movie Santa Claus you have to either tell a story about him from start to finish or understand the audience will already know who he is and what he stands for. We don’t need a slowly unfolding timeline of history when the goal is to see a kindly, naive elf be taken advantage of by an evil Scrooge of a capitalist named B.Z. (John Lithgow). Yes, there is a subplot of two children from different worlds—Cornelia’s (Carrie Kei Heim) life of luxury and Joe’s (Christian Fitzpatrick) existence on the cold streets—that ends up tying things together to help Santa save Patch from the horrors of humanity, but all the fluff surrounding becomes tedium to slog through without real use.

It’s a shame too because the second half has nicely adventurous elements, a great villain in Lithgow’s over-the-top revulsion, a fish-out-of-water redemption for an innocently simple mind, and unknown heroics hidden in the unlikeliest children we assume are either stuck up or selfishly indifferent. The spirit of Christmas is alive as Cornelia makes a plate of dinner for Joe’s huddled urchin outside as well as when Santa takes him under his wing to prove his existence and share in the joy of giving. One could say the same about Patch’s motivations upon leaving the North Pole with thoughts of failure as parents around the world sent back his toys from shoddy workmanship. All this elf wants to do is prove his worth and bring smiles to those he wronged. Bringing the magic dust used to fly Santa’s sleigh and letting a cretin like B.Z. use it in candy, however, wasn’t the best move to right his wrongs.

Despite Santa Claus‘s problems of knowing what it wants to be or its lengthy passages devoid of substance besides showing off a cool aesthetic and goofy assembly line machinery with bright colors, it isn’t without a certain charm. Lithgow is a delight hamming it up for the camera, Moore is a pleasure to watch fall prey to good intentions, and Huddleston makes a pretty darn good Santa. The memories surely don’t hold up against the inspiration spawning them, but I still cannot deny the hours of joy this film gave a young boy like myself in the 80s. Would I recommend new viewers to take a gander and fall in love? Probably not. But if you saw it in your youth and would like to journey back to the North Pole, I do believe there’s enough reaming to make the trip worthwhile.

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