A successful formula for any would-be Christmas film to adopt is that of shining a new light on the character of Santa Claus. Anytime a film can make Santa more believable to the viewer is usually something worthy of exploration. A lot of films, books, and other media have attempted to add to the Santa mythos which mostly originated in the classic poem Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the ones that have done it the best are the most memorable.
The Santa Clause is just such a picture which set out to answer many of the questions children have about the character. For the life of many a youngster, Santa is someone believed in without question at first. After all, who wants to have doubts about a nice guy who leaves you presents for just being a good boy or girl (with the “good” part being highly subjective and a very low bar to clear)? As adolescents get older, they naturally become more inquisitive and thats when the questions about Santa Claus start to show up. How do reindeer fly? How can one man visit every kid on earth in a single night? How does he fit all of those toys in his sleigh?
The Santa Clause actually has one answer for just about every question a kid could have about Santa: magic. It’s a rather easy explanation, but given the unbelievable nature of the character it’s often the best we have. The Santa Clause, in typical 90’s fashion, relies upon visual effects to make these answers entertaining beyond the whole “it’s magic, stupid!” Like many films from that era, the effects have not aged as well as maybe was expected.
Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a toy developer with a son who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Charlie, played by Eric Lloyd, has been lead to believe by his mother Laura (Wendy Crewson) and step-father Neil (Judge Reinhold) that Santa is not real, which naturally irritates Scott. Scott is a bit of an absentee father, partly because of the divorce, and because he works a lot. Charlie doesn’t have much faith in his father, and he clearly dreads spending Christmas Eve with his old man. Not much goes right, but Scott does succeed in restoring his son’s faith in Santa, and himself, when the real Santa falls off his roof to his own demise and Scott, unwittingly, picks up the mantle for himself.
Scott’s first adventure as Santa is when we get to see the magic at work. Scott and the audience share in the experience as neither knows how any of this stuff is supposed to work – Santa can’t really be real, can he? When Scott picks up an empty sack, presents appear inside. It hovers and directs him to a chimney to slide down. When no chimney exists, a septic exhaust is used and a fireplace magically appears inside the house. I remember these effects delighting my family and I when the film first came out, but viewed at now they do leave something to be desired. The illusion isn’t destroyed, but parents showing this one to their modern kids may be disappointed in their reaction.
The rest of the film mostly takes place after Christmas as we lead-up to the next one. No one believes Charlie’s account of what happened, which causes his mother and step-father to think Scott is brainwashing the kid and to seek sole custody. Meanwhile, Scott is physically transforming into Santa whether he likes it or not (he read the Santa Clause after the first one died, and apparently he would need a really good attorney to get out of it) which only strengthens his ex-wife’s argument for sole custody. This makes Laura (Charlie’s mom) and Neil the villains of the film, even if they’re only looking out for Charlie. It’s a Christmas movie, so everything comes together at the end, but this is one of those plots where the viewer knows what really happened and has to be frustrated by the actions of those who aren’t in the know.
Tim Allen is essentially allowed to be himself in his role as Scott Calvin/Santa Claus. He’s basically no different than Tim Taylor from Home Improvement, and even does his trademarked grunt at one point in the film. How much you like the film will probably hinge on your affection for Allen. I think I mostly liked him when I was younger, but the years haven’t been kind to Allen’s style of humor. I find him irritating in many scenes now, and his punchlines are often punch-less. As an adult, I find myself identifying more with the stiffs around him than the Scott character. He’s not all bad, but I hesitate to call his performance a strength.
The other aspect of this film that annoys me is the end, and to some degree, the Charlie character. The end of the film just goes on way too long and we’re kind of done with the Christmas cheer before Charlie starts shaking his snow globe. The Charlie character also can’t help but be annoying throughout the picture. Some of his actions are defensible, because he’s a kid, others are not and seem to betray the intelligence we see out of Charlie in other parts. By and large, Lloyd is a pretty good actor, but the director asks him to get sad and cry at one point which he clearly wasn’t up to the task for.
The Santa Clause is still recent enough to be considered modern, and it can probably be described as a modern classic. It brings enough to the table as far as a Santa story goes (even if parts of the plot mirror the Flintstone’s Christmas Special) to be memorable. If you’re easier on the effects and overall 90’s look and style of the picture (I for one, find the techno-junk look of Santa’s sleigh off-putting) then you probably like this film a lot more than I do. And if you’re a fan of Tim Allen, then it might even be your favorite Christmas movie.