For most of us, he's the personification of possible 25 December glee - or that annual trek into gift giving pointlessness (for yours truly - it was a HO train set that took 10 years to finally find its way under the tree, thank you very much). He's our first fantasy myth, and usually our third or fourth peer group "outing" (after the fallacy of The Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the entirety of the Rankin-Bass catalog). He's been commercialized and bastardized, explained and reinvented in ways both delirious (Bad Santa) and dark (Rare Exports). Of course, if Alexander and Ilya Salkind had been successful, there would be only one true Santa Claus, their 1985 cinematic version of the Winter wonder the first and last word on true First Noel enchantment. With a huge budget for the time ($50 million) and a script from noted Newman's Leslie and David (Superman, Jinxed! ) it seemed like a red and green given. Looking back now, it all actually rather pointless. Santa is too personal to be made into something mass marketable and mainstream (take that, certain soft drink). Still, The Salkinds tried and now 25 years later, audiences are still paying for it.
It's the 14th Century, and an aging woodcutter named Claus (David Huddleston) enjoys delivering toys to the local children. One night, while with his wife Anya and his pet reindeer Donner and Blitzen, he gets lost in a blizzard. By magic, he is transported to the Arctic land of the Vendequm - sensible elves lead by the wise Dooley. Told of his destiny to deliver joy worldwide, he takes the name "Santa" and begins his fated rounds. With the help of an inventor elf named Patch (Dudley Moore), the new Kris Kringle puts in mass manufacturing. Fast forward six hundred years and the aging icon needs an assistant. Patch seems perfect, until his supposedly foolproof toy machine fails. This causes the tiny employee to leave the North Pole and seek his fortune in the real world. Meeting up with mogul B.Z. (John Lithgow), Patch proposes they use Christmas magic to make special gifts for the kiddies. Our corporate shark is more than happy to comply, since he's been looking for a way to take over the holiday season once and for all.
While not exactly a stocking full of coal, Santa Claus: The Movie is indeed like getting dress pants and button down shirts for Christmas instead of a slot car racing set. It's a decent origin story clouded by a crappy high concept comedy, a star turn where the actor positioned for the people seems even less interested in acting than he did previously. Dudley Moore was not the hottest commodity coming out of his then current downward descent, thanks in part to problematic titles like Unfaithfully Yours and Best Defense. Yet someone felt his dimming celebrity could carry the "funny" part of the film, and the diminutive Brit made questionable sense as one of Santa's sarcastic elves. But looking bored and acting same do not a seasonal smilefest make. Instead, Moore meanders through a bunch of expensive sets, hoping that this particular paycheck keeps him away from the inevitability of hackwork for a couple of years. It didn't (Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Like Father Like Son would quickly follow). The promise of this picture, the particular spin given to its pre-release purpose, is completely undermined by the entire "Vendequm" nonsense, not to mention the Howard the Duck like stupidity of the second act.
At first, it looks like the Salkinds will get it mostly right. Trying to give the jolly old bowl full of jelly some beyond Coca-Cola legitimacy, they delve deep into folklore and local tradition to compile a compelling look at how Santa came to be. While not as much fun as the source narrative developed by Rankin and Bass for their lighthearted Santa Claus is Coming to Town, it's more respectful than anything associated with Tim Allen and a lingering legal obligation. David Huddleston, who would eventually become a certified cult phenomenon as the title character in the Coen Brothers' brilliant The Big Lebowski, plays St. Nicholas with the proper amount of weight and decorum. Never falling over into farce, he makes us believe there is an plump immortal with magical powers making "naughty" and "nice" entries in his own copy of the global children's census. Sure, the animatronic reindeer look ridiculous, and there remains a gingerbread and candy cane conceit to the whole North Pole toy manufacturing concern, but for the most part, Santa Claus: The Movie gets the legend part mostly right.
But the minute our UK comedian gets his dwarfish tights in a bunch and heads off to commiserate with Lithgow's B.Z., the movie just sinks. Sure, we can buy the notion of an aging Santa needing "helpers" - it plays into every parent/child department store conversation there has ever been. But things go from twee to terrible quickly. As a villain, B.Z. is too over the top, too cigar-chompingly obvious to be anything other than a buffoon, and the inclusion of two little brats - Joe and Cornelia - is just pandering PC overkill. As with many stuffed scripts films from the era, an action scene has to resolve everything, something called a 'Super Duper Looper' (and Donner's inner ear issues) needing to be established and then incessantly restated before the day can be saved. This descent into the contrived and conventional does more to destroy the spirit of Christmas itself than a myriad of atheists arguing over the placement of a Nativity Scene outside the local courthouse. Perhaps in the hands of someone other than Jaws 2's Jeannot Szwarc this joyless bedlam might work. With him - and Moore - Santa Claus: The Movie, is an unwelcome yuletide tale.
More or less porting over the entire package from a previous Anchor Bay release, Lions Gate produces a laughably lame seasonal tie-in, nothing more. The 2.35:1 image is soft and foggy, filled with a kind of vasoline on the lens quality that's supposed to suggest the ethereal, but comes across like a concerning case of glaucoma. There's even the same "strong" letterboxing bands top and bottom, even more obvious on today's HD screens. While the colors are bright and the visuals arresting, this tired old transfer (no remaster here, film fans) is neither.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is more or less meaningless, except when there's action or unnecessary musical montages involved. For the most part, most of the sonic situations sits in the front channels, the back speakers reserved for cloying songs or sloppy sleigh acrobatics. The score, by Henry Mancini, is not one of the famed composer's best. Unfortunately, the presentation finds a way to make it even more overbearing.
Again, we get the same set of bonus features that Anchor Bay offered a few years back. There's a 50-minute making of documentary, a commentary with director Jeannot Szwarc and moderator Scott Michael Bosco, some talent files and trailers. No big deal.
It's important to put yourself in the Salkind mindset circa 1985. They had turned the story of Clark Kent and his alter ego Superman into a hot cinematic property (only to kill it again with the one two sucker punch of Part III and Supergirl) and were looking for another potential franchise. Santa Claus was a seemingly perfect fit - beloved INTERNATIONAL character, endless seasonal stories, a built in annual audience. Of course, the first film would have to be special. It ended up being specious at best. Earning a realistic Rent It, Santa Claus: The Movie suffers from a classic case of the 'overs' - overthinking, overproduction, and overestimating the interest of film fans everywhere. In the decades that have followed, the title has become more folly than jolly. Not surprisingly, there's been no follow-up. Apparently, Santa's shelf life is a lot longer when it comes to stop motion or pen and ink than live action. One look at this lame effort and you'll instantly understand why.
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