Like “The Night They Saved Christmas”, “Santa Claus the Movie” sets out to give you a fuller picture of Santa. However, in this film, brought you by the Superman Team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, writers David and Leslie Newman, and Supergirl Director Jeannot Szwarc, we see a rounded myth of Pere Noel that is not exactly the classic Macy’s Santa.
PLOT: In an unnamed Scandanvian country, children await the arrival of local toymaker “Uncle Claus.” As he hands out the various trickets and baubles he made for the kids, his wife, Anya, is warned the bridge to the next town might be out. Claus vows to reach the next town so all the children will get a toy for Christmas. Claus, Anya, and their two reindeer freeze to death.
I’m not kidding. They die in the first five minutes. It’s not presented as death, though, as all the frozen travelers awaken in an almost accurate portrayal of the North Pole: a desolate waste with no canyons, cliffs or any geological features. However, the light of the North Star reveals Brigado–I mean, The Elvish Halls of Something Something. Here, the Elves have been practicing their craft in waiting for “The Man Who Would Come.” Claus is told by the Master Elf (Burgess Meredith) that he is their Elvish Prophecy fullfilled and shall be known throughout the world as Santa Claus. He is also given the power of flight and time travel to aid him in his new mission.
Flash foward several centuries to the present (er, the late 20th Century. I’m never going to get used to that). New York is cold and gray for transient youngster Joe. He’d be starving to death if not for the goodwill of rich, isolated Cornelia (I’m pretty sure this is the only time in the history of Cinema where a character named Cornelia is NOT EVIL). She gives him a bit of the Christmas Eve dinner prepared by her nanny/tutor. Pretty sweet deal for Joe, but he also meets Santa on this night. Santa, apparently, had been ignorant to the abject poverty in New York until 1986 or so. Maybe it’s because Joe is white. Either way, Santa gives Joe a primer in Yuletide gift giving where he formally meet Cornelia — now called Cornie for the rest of the film — for the first time.
Oh, but there’s a complication! Santa’s assistant elf, Patch, has introduced manufacturing into the Workshop. It makes orders easier to fill, but Patch forgot to invent Quality Assurance. As a result, the children send back Patch’s shoddy products. He resigns as assistant and loses sight of Briga-Santa’s Workshop. Once in the world of Man, Patch encounters crooked toy magnate B.Z. (We are never told what B.Z. is supposed to refer to. Is it his initials? His first and middle name? A really obtuse nick-name? Skull and Bones name, maybe?). B.Z. (JOHN LITHGOW!) is under investigation by the Federal Trade Comission. Our lad Patch mistakes him for an ethical toymaker and makes a deal for next Christmas.
Come that next year, Santa meets up with Joe and they discover Patch’s new toy: a lollipop that allows children to float on air. Turns out Patch took a stash of the magic hash that makes the reindeer fly and yeah, this happened. Turns out he wanted to impress Santa, but instead made a lot of good PR for B.Z. who turns out to be Cornie’s step-uncle! (gasp!)
So, secrets are reveled, candy canes explode, and Santa brings Joe and Cornie to the North Pole, presumably to replace Claus the First. Oh, and B.Z. ends up in space.
Analysis: The most important thing you need to know about this film: Santa is the Big Lebowski. No, really. Actor David Huddleston played both big parts. It’s somewhat unnerving to watch in him in either role once you’ve seen both films. His performance as Santa, though, is pretty much what you hope the big lug to be: a gregarious ten-year old who has no concept of labor relations or conspicuous consumption. This Santa’s heart is bigger than his ass.
THIS FILM ALSO FEATURES JOHN LITHGOW IN A PERFORMANCE MUCH BIGGER THAN THIS SENTENCE! Lithgow’s B.Z. is very much a one-note villian (LOUD!), but you have to love Lithgow’s disregard for the rules of acting in the sort of bad guy role children relish to hate. I think, much like Mason Adams’s Murdoch, Lithgow elevates the film by his very presence. I remember being shocked to watch him in “Harry & The Hendersons” and see him play a carrying father instead of a cruel “step-uncle.”
Ooh, while we’re on the topic, I think “step-uncle” is a fabulously perverse Dickensian concept. B.Z. is Cornelia’s uncle by marriage and, somehow, he ended up with custody of her. It’s so brutally old world Christmas, that it’s hard to believe it appears in this film.
Dudley Moore is also in this as Patch. While not as insufferable as Paul Williams’s Ed, Moore make a valiant effort to be obnoxious as the foward-thinking elf. Also, as an adult, it’s fun to spot the scenes where the actor is clearly soused. Much like Michael Caine in “Jaws The Revenge,” there are some places where Moore is stewed to the gills and every other metaphor for drunk you can think of.
That said, the rest of the elves with speaking parts are pretty good. Particularly, John Barrard, who plays the One called Dooley. (That’s how the elves introduce themselves.)
Which also bring ups the annoying “elf-made” business. In the film, elves cannot say “self,” which leads to a lot of “elf-control” type puns. The most egregious of which is Patch’s line, “You know what they say, Heaven helps those who help their elf.” Ugh.
The film itself is a pretty gentle one. It predates the arrival of irony in family films, so it treats its subject with a fair amount of respect. In that, the movie is pretty good for kids who still believe in Big Bearded Guy. For adults, it’s a chore to sit through as it will grates on a more sophisticated sensibility. Unlike the Night They Saved Christmas, the movie also treats Santa’s abilities as unknowable. In this respect, it maintains its central illusion. These fantasies simply exist. If you can hold your breath long enough, you won’t notice how ill at ease the illusion is with the 20th Century portion of the film.
It really is the later half that sinks the film for the most part. More dialog driven and less magical, it expects Dudley Moore and LITHGOW! to carry the modern world; a task they are really not up to.
You could do a lot worse this Yuletide than sit down with the kids and watch this one. If they’re six or so, they’ll buy the magic and enjoy it. It will drive you a little bit nuts, but you will enjoy LITHGOW! ACTING!