AGAINST THE GRAIN: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

John gets down with his childhood self to stick up for a much-maligned festive “classic.”

Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. A time to forget about your troubles and be merry with festive cheer. And there’s nothing like getting all warm and cosy in front of your television and enjoying a good, old-fashioned holiday film. There are so many to choose from but the one that brings out that magical, child-like feeling inside me is Santa Claus: The Movie. A classic fantasy tale that will always warm the hearts of the whole family.

Santa Claus explores the magical journey of Saint Nicholas, from a humble toymaker to the jolly sleigh-rider we all know and love. After an industrial accident in Santa’s workshop results in several faulty toys, disgraced elf Patch (Dudley Moore) decides to leave the North Pole and venture into the real world and make it on his own. In New York, Patch meets a ruthless toy manufacturer, B.Z. (John Lithgow). who manipulates Patch for his own selfish agenda, which threatens to ruin the true meaning of Christmas forever.

The movie was produced on a budget of $50 million and directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who had worked his way up the filmmaking ranks with his work on TV shows such as Ironside, Columbo, The Rockford Files, and Night Gallery, before making the successful leap into feature films with Jaws 2 (1978), Somewhere in Time (1980) and Supergirl (1984). Szwarc landed the job after several other well-known directors couldn’t agree terms with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (Superman), including John Carpenter, Lewis Gilbert, Guy Hamilton, and Robert Wise.

Santa Claus has a great cast throughout. David Huddleston as the title legend is believable in the role, playing the character with a wonderful subtlety, bringing warmth and humanity to what many would consider a jolly, stereotypical character. Moore is perfect as the naïve elf, Patch. His likable comic charm never provides us with a dull moment on screen. He takes the role fairly seriously and doesn’t attempt to make himself come across as childish and stupid. But, for me, the star of the show is Lithgow as B.Z. He has always been a solid actor, with underrated performances in both drama and comedy, be it a criminal genius in Cliffhanger (1993) or as a bumbling alien in the TV series 3rd Rock from the Sun. With his devilish grin and whiney voice, he makes the perfect pantomime villain.

What I enjoy most about this film is its fantasy element. It is truly a story for kids and one which will only help enforce their belief in Santa. There is everything you could possibly ask for in a Christmas film: snow, elves, reindeers, sleigh bells and, of course, St. Nick. I have vivid memories of my mum taking me to see this film at the cinema when I was five. This was back when going to see a film on the big screen was an event and something you really looked forward to. I don’t remember too much about the experience (I am thirty-four now), but I do remember the feeling it gave me as a kid, and how all these colourful images and delightful sounds captivated my young imagination. Many will say this film only demonstrates the farcical and deluded nature of the holidays, but as a kid. all you have are hopes and dreams as you remain oblivious to the evils of real-life. And Santa Claus, for me, is the ultimate Christmas escape into a world that doesn’t quite exist but probably should.

Santa Claus: The Movie was released on November 27th, 1985, and was greeted with mainly negative reviews, only managing to recoup $23,717,291 of its sizeable budget. The New York Times’ critic Vincent Canby described the film as having “the manner of a listless musical without any production numbers.” He also stated that “Santa’s workshop must be the world’s largest purchaser of low-grade plywood,” and that the flyover sequences with the title character “aren’t great.” A lot of the film’s criticism stemmed from weak plotting and the product placement of big companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s featuring prominently throughout.

It may not be the greatest Christmas film ever made, but it certainly is the most enchanting for this reviewer. I would be very surprised if any child under the age of ten didn’t find it a joy to watch. It always makes my top ten festive film list along with the likes of Scrooged (1988), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) and Home Alone (1990). So don’t be a Grinch and embrace this magical piece of celluloid. Ho-ho-ho!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The role of B.Z. was offered to Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, Dustin Hoffman, and Johnny Carson, all of whom turned it down.
  • Real deer were trained to pull the sleigh. The crew required months to complete the training which also allowed the deer to grow their antlers for the final filming. For shots where it was not possible to use the deer, sophisticated animatronic deer were used.
  • In the U.S. trailers for the film, Dudley Moore gets top billing and David Huddleston gets third billing. In the international trailer, Huddleston gets top billing and Moore gets fourth billing.
  • Paul McCartney was originally going to write and perform a theme song, but his record label declined.

John Cowdell

I have been writing and producing short films for over ten years and are now branching out into film reviews.

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