My latest article for the Agony Booth looks at a holiday film that I can only describe as a missed opportunity.
The movie was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who remain famous for bringing us the original 1978 Superman. That film was such a triumph for the duo that it’s thankfully somewhat eclipsed the poor decisions they made on subsequent films, most notably Superman III and Supergirl.
They obviously wanted to make Santa Claus: The Movie follow the same formula and structure as Superman: The Movie—I’m surprised the tagline was “Seeing is believing” and not “You will believe reindeer can fly!”—and it works (for the first half, at least) for the same reason that Superman worked; both give us origin tales filled with a sense of genuine wonder and magic as we see the title character with new eyes. Unfortunately, the second half of the film makes the same mistakes that Superman III did, both by adding unnecessary characters and hijinks and by forcing its lead to become a secondary character in his own movie.
The director of this film, Jeannot Szwarc, was picked by the Salkinds because they loved his similar work on Supergirl—and considering how bad that movie is, one wonders if the Salkinds even watched it. (Though, in all fairness, Santa Claus was well into production by the time Szwarc’s Supergirl was released to the public and became a massive bomb.)
Santa Claus: The Movie begins in the 14th Century, where a kind toymaker named Claus (David Huddleston) and his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell) are caught in a blizzard with their reindeer Donner and Blitzen. They nearly freeze to death, but are later awakened by a mysterious light and then a group of elves coming forward to greet them.
They take the couple and their reindeer to the Fortress of Solitude, uh, I mean, a magical workshop. One of the elves Dooley (John Barrand) informs Claus that they want him to deliver the toys they’re making to children everywhere, each Christmas Eve. When Claus states that this is physically impossible, and there’s not nearly enough time to do this, Dooley reveals that he and Anya now have all the time in the world. They’ll live forever, and that’s a pretty sweet Christmas gift if there ever was one.
As the couple gets acquainted with their new surroundings and their new friends, eager-to-please elf Patch (Dudley Moore) attempts to make Donner feel at home. He later introduces Claus to six other reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, and Cupid. As the next Christmas approaches, other familiar aspects of the holiday emerge, including the creation of Kris Kringle’s red suit, which is actually the second attempt after an elf tailor sews a green suit (probably a nod to some historical depictions of Santa).
On Christmas Eve night, Jor-El, I mean, an unnamed ancient elf (Burgess Meredith) shows up and basically repeats that Claus will delivers toys to all the children of the world on Christmas Eve, and then christens him with his new name: Santa Claus. With that, the sleigh is packed, the eight reindeer are fed special food which enables them to fly, and Santa gives the signal to head out to deliver presents.
As the centuries pass, Santa becomes an enduring figure the world over, shown in a montage that includes the origins of such things as the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (AKA “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), the leaving of cookies and milk, the list of who’s naughty and who’s nice, the checking of it twice, and also, the invention of the snow globe. In fact, it seems the latter was invented by Patch, which prompts Santa to make him his main toy-making assistant.
Had the film ended here, it would be a perfect movie. Unfortunately, the film loses its momentum when we suddenly shift to contemporary times. It’s at this point that the movie decides to give center stage to a lackluster subplot involving a bitter, homeless orphan boy in New York named Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick). In a crass bit of product placement, Joe hungrily watches people devour burgers and fries at a McDonald’s for what feels like minutes on end, until he gets a free meal from a bored rich girl named Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim).
But then it’s time for one of Santa’s annual deliveries, during which he decides to give Joe some Christmas cheer by befriending him, and later Cornelia, and flying Joe around town in his sleigh for a while. And I’m not one to expect child actors to give great performances; not every kid can be Haley Joel Osment, but these two kids don’t exactly endear themselves to us, with Joe coming off as annoying while Cornelia is just bland.
Just prior to this, we learned Patch’s new position has prompted him to come up with new things to invent. Eventually, he creates an automated assembly line machine that lets the elves make toys faster. He’s delighted by the speed at which the thing is spitting out toys, but unbeknownst to any of the elves, the machine is starting to sloppily put the toys together.
The toys begin breaking apart not long after they’re delivered, and this makes people apparently lose faith in Santa. Both Joe and Cornelia get criticized for even believing in Santa, which makes one wonder where the people in this film think the toys are coming from in the first place. This discontent with Santa leads to Patch resigning his post by saying that “red just isn’t my color”—you know, instead of simply performing some routine maintenance on the stupid machine that caused all the trouble.
With that, Patch leaves the North Pole and winds up in New York, where a toy magnate named B.Z. (John Lithgow) is being forced to withdraw all his toys from stores because they’re also displaying signs of shoddy workmanship. Patch witnesses some of these toys being taken out of a store, and mistakenly thinks they’re being sold at a fast pace.
So Patch meets up with B.Z., and after some brief incredulity on the B.Z.’s part about meeting an elf, they strike a deal to make a Christmas treat for children. This treat involves the food that makes the reindeer fly, and sure enough, when Patch delivers his new lollipop (in a fancy new flying car he’s invented), the candy immediately becomes a big hit, because anyone eating it temporarily floats. And apparently, the FDA is not too concerned about the potential side effects of ingesting this candy. Maybe they’re just as happy as everyone else thinking about the money they’ll save on gas.
The success of the lollipop prompts B.Z. to ask Patch to make a stronger mixture of the reindeer food, this time in the form of candy canes. Patch reluctantly agrees to have them ready by next Christmas, but B.Z. doesn’t want to wait that long, and suggests creating a holiday “sequel” to fill the void. Lithgow then chews the scenery like there’s no tomorrow when he plans for the canes to be in stores by March 25, announcing, “We’ll call it ‘Christmas II’!”
Oh, and what’s Santa doing during all this? He’s sulking because he misses Patch and thinks the world no longer loves him. And this is pretty much all he does until the movie’s finale.
One night, Joe decides to pay Cornelia a visit by sneaking into her house (how romantic), where it’s revealed that B.Z. is actually Cornelia’s step-uncle. Joe is caught and locked up in the basement of B.Z.’s factory, while Cornelia overhears B.Z.’s assistant informing him of a slight defect in the candy canes: they explode when exposed to extreme heat. Patch knows nothing about this product flaw, and B.Z. is planning to sell the canes anyway and let Patch take the fall.
At long last, Santa comes back into the film when Cornelia writes him a letter explaining the situation. He soon shows up via her chimney and off they go to rescue Joe.
Cut to Patch finding and releasing an initially-hostile Joe. Patch also realizes that Santa still likes him when he sees a gift Santa gave Joe: it’s a wood-carved likeness of Patch made by Santa’s own hands. Joe then stops hating Patch when he sees his fancy flying car, which Patch loads up with the (now radioactively glowing) candy canes, planning to return them all to the North Pole.
In the midst of all this, the police have (somehow) closed in on B.Z., who manages to escape capture by wolfing down as many of the magic candy canes as possible. He then leaps out of his office window and just keeps floating up into the air.
Meanwhile, Patch and Joe are heading north, unaware that the candy canes have turned Patch’s car into a flying Ford Pinto. The car’s flight is generating extreme heat, which leads to those candy canes catching fire. Fortunately for them, action hero Santa Claus (and Cornelia) show up to save them just as the car blows up.
The four return to the North Pole with the two kids planning to stay a while. (Which makes sense for Joe, since he’s an orphan, but even though Cornelia’s technically an orphan, you’d have to think that at least her nanny or the kids at school would be freaked out over her sudden disappearance.) And presumably, Patch will return from his leave of absence to finally fix his damn toy-making machine.
The movie ends with B.Z. and the remains of Patch’s car just floating off into space. At least we know he won’t be out there forever, since 3rd Rock From the Sun was only ten years or so away. And part of me wonders if this ending was meant as a demented homage to how the Superman films always ended with Christopher Reeve soaring around in orbit.
The reason the film starts to fail after the first half-hour is because the title character becomes just as irrelevant as Superman in Superman III, where the Man of Steel ends up playing second-fiddle to Richard Pryor’s antics. Here, Santa ends up being little more than a deus ex machina at the end of a story starring John Lithgow and Dudley Moore. David Huddleston certainly looks the part, and overall provides a good performance, but for being the title character, Santa really isn’t fleshed out very much or given that much to do.
Even worse, the characters the movie focuses on are just irritating. Moore certainly had great comic timing, as Arthur proved, but his character here doesn’t have anything close to the same wittiness. The jokes Moore delivers here never rise above the level of Patch’s annoying habit of using puns in his everyday speech, like “elf-control”, “elf-pity”, “elf-esteem”, and “elf-explanatory”. Oh, I get it. He’s an elf!
The only one who’s truly fun to watch here is Lithgow. This isn’t surprising, since he could already play villains in his sleep by this point and could ham it up with the best of them.
Unlike Superman, I can’t say if the Salkinds planned to make a movie series out of this idea. But the failure of this film proved that things tend to work out for the best, because I’m guessing any follow-ups would have sidelined Kris Kringle in favor of over-the-top villains and in-name-only comic relief. No company has decided to actually create Christmas II for real (yet), but at least we can be thankful there never was a Santa Claus II.