Santa Claus the Movie (1985)
Written by David & Leslie Newman
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
In the wake of the box office failure of Superman III, producer Ilya Salkind wanted to cash in on more pieces of Americana, so he conceived the idea of Santa Claus the Movie. In the same vein as that 1979 film that kicked off the Superman franchise, Santa Claus the Movie, would explore the origins of the iconic figure, explaining all the facets from how he travels down chimneys to where his red suit came from. The resulting movie is a horrible piece of garbage that lacks any heart or humor, it’s a shallow, tedious drudgery that I cannot imagine any child enjoying for more than a couple of minutes.
Sometime in the dark ages, a man named Claus delivers toys to children with his wife Anya during Christmas. One night, they and his reindeer Donner and Blitzen become trapped in the mountains during a blizzard. I read this scene as them dying. They wake up at the top of the world where they are greeted by the Vendequm or Elves, who have been waiting for Claus. He has been prophesied for centuries, and the Elves have a warehouse full of toys they have prepared for his coming. Time passes, and we see the components of Santa’s mythology come about bringing us to present-day 1985.
Santa becomes friends with a young homeless boy in New York City. Meanwhile, Patches (Dudley Moore), an ambitious elf, fails at a bid to become Santa’s assistant after attempting to mechanize the toy-making process. Out of shame, Patches leaves the North Pole and ends up striking up a business deal with B.Z. (John Lithgow), a crooked toy manufacturer. Of course, this all goes wrong, and Santa must swoop in to save the day.
When originally conceived, the film had John Carpenter attached as director and Brian Dennehy as a possible Claus. Eventually, that didn’t work out, and we ended up with Jeannot Szwarc (Supergirl) as the director and David Huddleston (The Big Lebowski) as the title character. Huddleston is fine, but it is Szwarc’s direction that ruins the whole affair, plus that terrible script. Supergirl is an awful movie, a continuation of the Salkind’s post-Richard Donner tanking of the Superman franchise. The entire North Pole is an entirely uninspired bland world, looking like the least amount of effort was taken in the production design. It all looks like it was made out of colorful building blocks. There’s no texture or depth to the world.
The script rips off the same structure of Superman the Movie but not as good. The first half of the movie is all about building the mythology and origins of the character. Then we have a second half that introduces a villain and central problem. The tonal shift in Superman wasn’t very jarring, but here it feels like we switch tracks to an entirely different movie. The bigger problem is that neither of these Santa movies is any good and fall into formulas without any attractive aesthetics to elevate the whole affair.
I liked some of the elements in that second half, a satire of how Christmas has been co-opted by corporate interests. B.Z.’s decision to introduce Christmas II in March was fodder for something hilarious, but it’s thrown away. There is a genuinely funny Senate hearing where B.Z.’s toys are revealed as comically dangerous complete with a teddy bear stuffed with nails and broken glass. The script doesn’t pursue this angle, and thus it settles into simplistic, tedious tripe.
In an attempt to recreate the magic of Superman the Movie, we learn how hard it is to do. Elements are slapped into a formula, and Salkind thought he would have the same result. But the problem with Santa Claus the Movie are the same things that plagued Supergirl and Superman III, these are pictures that lack all sense of heart and soul. They feel like products coming off a conveyor belt, shaped to sell to a target demographic but complete failures.