Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
To some he’s simply a morbidly obese corporate figure that is used to deceive children into believing that a stranger delivers them presents every year. Morphing from Saint Nick to Santa Claus over the centuries, for most Santa is simply the ubiquitous ambassador of all things Yuletide, a man in a red suit who has done everything from coming to town to conquering the Martians. The modern versions of Santa Claus go back to at least the early 19th century, with the famous poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, or as it is better known today, “The Night Before Christmas”. All that is well and good, but it’s more fun to pretend he’s real, right?
Santa Claus: The Movie tells the origin story of the jolly fat man. The first half reveals how a peasant woodcutter in the 14th century, Claus (David Huddleston), and his wife are rescued from a blizzard, only to find themselves knee-deep in elves at the top of the world. Thus begins the legend of the Santa Claus, with the elves realising a prophecy that will grant Claus and his wife immortality so that they can deliver presents to the children of the world. In the 20th century, elf Patch (Dudley Moore) begins marketing some of Santa’s magic, not realising that he may be inadvertently destroying Christmas.
Santa Claus: The Movie is a film divided. The first half of the film is the kind of magical adventure that is perfect for an audience of children and adults alike. Through a series of (then) state-of-the-art special effects, Claus is transformed from your average woodcutter to the man in red himself. Santa’s workshop is brought to stunning life in a reveal that is still breathtaking, and the initial scenes set inside the toy factory are joyous. You have to take the rough with the smooth, with a plethora of elf-puns (“Don’t be ‘elf-conscious!”) that may lead you to ‘elf-harm. However, as the fish-out-of-water Claus adapts to life at the top of the world via a makeover montage, we witness a Santa movie that is designed to evoke the holiday spirit in all of us. It is only when the film catches up to the corporate greed of the 20th century that the narrative needs a little ‘elf-help.
Director Jeannot Szwarc, already a dab hand at spinning off existing properties via Jaws II and Supergirl, proves his prowess with special effects, where you will believe a sleigh can fly over New York City. Yet Leslie and David Newman’s (Bonnie and Clyde, Superman, Moonwalker‘s “Smooth Criminal”) script muddles matters by not only throwing two antagonists into the mix, in the form of the misguided Patch and the nefarious toymaker B.Z. (John Lithgow), but never fully draws the villain or his overall scheme. Lithgow does a find job of cigar chomping, and would probably stroke a cat if the props department had wrangled one for him, but he never moves beyond being a caricature and, short of briefly sending Santa into a sulking fit, never poses any kind of threat to Christmas.
Santa Claus: The Movie is very much a product of the 1980s, where the “greed is good” of corporate U.S. of A was the cancer that was undoing all that was decent, wholesome and goshdarnit, American in the world. French director Szwarc’s vision of the world is not always a pretty one, with an orphan child who really only has one chance to survive through the goodness of Santa. All is well with Santa’s world by the end of the piece, but the problem with such a thoroughly modern and even more cynical piece is that it can’t overcome all the problems of the globe by the time the clock strikes midnight. Indeed, much of the film takes place after Christmas, so there isn’t even the added pressure of saving the festive season. The lack of urgency means that the last quarter of the film is, like the elf played by Dudley Moore, a little patchy, but its heart is mostly in the right place. If for no other reason, there’s a strong score from Pink Panther‘s Henry Mancini that rips along at a tidy pace.
Santa Claus: The Movie Theatrical Trailer