As poor as I remember it being as a child, which is poorer than the orphan Joe!
A family, fantasy, adventure, Christmas film from 1985 – which has been repeated on commercial TV nearly every year that I can remember since the 80’s. While some people think of this film with fondness and happiness, I am not one of those people and I have my own gripes about it – but as it’s the season of joy, I’ll ‘try‘ not to get too ranty.
Warning: Unpopular opinions coming up. Even my mum disagrees with me on this one!
“Santa Claus The Movie” is brought to audiences by the producers that also brought the world “Superman“. It is directed by Jeannot Szwarc, written by David and Leslie Newman, the film stars David Huddleston as Santa, Dudley Moore as an elf called Patch, and John Lithgow as B.Z. a greedy toy tycoon. You’ll also see performances from Burgess Meredith, Jeffrey Kramer, Don Estelle and Melvyn Hayes to name a few. It’s a very American big-budget film, which flopped at the box-office and only recouped around half of it’s production budget.
The film can broken down into two parts. The first part of the film shows how a poor toy-maker from a Scandinavian village gains immortality and becomes Santa Claus. He then spreads joy and happiness to all deserving children over the centuries. This is very much an ‘origin story’, which is quite apt as the film tried to make Santa into a superhero, which I’ll mention later in this review.
The second part of the film is set in and stuck in the 1980’s. It’s rich with product placement and mass produced commercial existence. In this second part, one of Santa’s elves (Patch) leaves the North Pole to make a living for himself. His aim is to prove to Santa that his new mass production techniques are as good as the old ways of hand making toys. In the mortal realm of reality, a.k.a. America – a toy manufacturing big-wig soon enticed Patch the elf into working for him, just so he can make his next fortune by exploiting the elf. While all this is going on, an orphan boy called Joe is having a “Lady and the Tramp” moment which plays out like Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl“, with Cornelia, a girl that is surrounded by riches but hasn’t got much love. Santa is forced into action to save Patch and Joe. It might not be Christmas but the rotund merry man has to act fast to save the day.
I remember watching this film as a 5 year old growing up in the 1980’s. I didn’t like it much as a child, but as I’ve got older it offends me less – maybe its nostalgia or maybe I grew up and gained an emotional fondness of Christmas. It’s harmless enough, maybe, looking back, it was me that was the issue rather than the film.
I always felt that this film tried too hard, it tried to ram it’s themes and morals down the audiences throat. It felt sickly sweet in places, and cheesy, corny, and camp in other places. It smacked of formulaic 1980’s style movies where, among the neon product placement of fast-food takeaways, a story had been brutally carved out to tug on heartstrings, regardless of how much depth it actually had (or didn’t have in this case). This film tried to make Santa cool – like he’s a year-long hero who can save people and not just deliver presents and good tidings of joy during the inter solstice. This was a big issue to me when I watched this in the 80’s and still is for me now. Maybe that’s what made me dislike this as a child; my heroes wear cape’s or iron body suits; they had gamma poisoning or wielded might hammers – they didn’t dress in red and fly on magical sleighs pulled through the air by reindeer.
Another thing that bothers me are the elves and the toys they make. They never really moved with the times, and so Patch’s idea of mass production techniques may be alien to them, but it’s more just natural evolution that the North pole is denying. As a child of the 80’s watching a film about children of the 80’s – I found it difficult to believe that hand-carved wooden toys were still popular enough to made by the elves and distributed by Santa. Who wants them? It’s an interesting stance that the film forced me into really, and shows how out of touch it is/was. The film says that mass produced consumerism is bad, but it also shows that the world has changed and the old techniques don’t stand up to modern life (FTR, the old techniques aren’t that far removed from a sweatshop where disadvantaged elves live and work in the same place and have little to no existence in the outside world). The film could therefore be saying that the idea of Christmas is outdated? Whether it is a hand-made, or factory produced Christmas, that the film suggesting is the right way, it’s lost it’s way and is going down it’s own route of greed and consumerism without realizing it. The film is still ultimately glorifying the idea of possessions – kids still wanting and getting toys, parents still want to have a glamorous and glitzy celebration with a full table, even certain scenes in the film act as an living advertisements for consumer items – toys, food and drink manufacturers, cars, clothes, etc. So what is the film actually saying – Christmas is good as long as you only indulge in things highlighted in the film? Christmas is good as long as the possessions you have are made by hand? It’s confused, when in fact Christmas, or Christ’s Mass, is a Christian festival about celebrating the birth of Jesus, and the winter solstice. It was taken from earlier beliefs including Romans and Pagans, and adopted by Christian beliefs. Saint Nicholas was actually a Greek Bishop who gifted to poor children. This isn’t covered in the film nor is anything to do with Jesus. Instead it’s all about possessions and shopping, about magical flying sleighs and magical strangers that can appear inside people’s houses. The Santa depicted in film here is more of how capitalist American depicted him in the earlier 1800’s, how he Coca-Cola and Macy’s made him out to be. But hey, listen to me, I’m ranting now and probably sound like a Grinch myself now so I’ll stop looking into it as deep as I am.
Casting wise this film is a bit of a vehicle for Dudley Moore. He has some success in the 80’s and the elf that he plays isn’t a million miles away from some of the other cheeky chappies he’s played in other films. David Huddleston does okay as Santa, the various elves generally fit their roles too. Like in so many other films John Lithgow plays a slightly deranged bad guy quite well. The orphan Joe, played by Christian Fitzpatrick, fits the bill too alongside Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim). As I’ve mentioned already, their role in this film seems to be to play out “Lady and the Tramp” or Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl“. While they add a bit of a modern dimension into the film, it’s still just repeating the consumerism theme. Joe is poor which is good, and Cornelia is surrounded by riches, and that’s bad. If I am completely honest, the film could have coped without this additional addition. If Joe and Cornelia’s story had of been omitted and instead the film just had Santa rescuing Patch, maybe the film would have flowed easier, been a little shorter, and maybe would have made itself a little more ageless and unlikely to look and feel outdated as quickly.
All in all this is actually a harmless enough film. It doesn’t deliver as much of Christmas message as say “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but what it does is try to use Christmas as a way of commentating on how the consumerism and capitalism of the 80’s isn’t all that good – which I’ve ranted enough about already. This family movie is one that is aimed at and can be enjoyed by kids (but beware, there are some mild swear words in the film). It isn’t a film for older audiences that look beyond the visuals being played out on screen. It’s good versus evil, where Santa is good and John Lithgow’s B.Z. is bad. Unfortunately the film does look extremely dated by today’s standards, so I am not sure how long this may be repeated before its updated or rebooted. For the time being it’s not the worst, or best, film you are likely to watch that has a Christmas theme. I’m giving this a 4 out of 10 and confirming that it’s a no-ho-ho from me.