As a genre Christmas movies are sadly more more miss than hit – for every Miracle on 34th Street you have a dozen more like Santa Claus Conquerors the Martian – then in 1985 the Salkinds decided to take their stab at the Christmas movie, with Supergirl director Jeannot Szwarc at the helm, and that’s exactly what we got…stabbed.
The movie starts out promising enough, as we pan down from a starry sky to a snowy Scandinavian landscape and quaint cottage full of people eagerly awaiting the arrival of their beloved friend Uncle Claus (David Huddleston), a kindly man who bring toys for all the children. Many are impressed that Claus can cut wood for the whole village and still have time to carve all the wooden toys he provides each year, but it’s his love for the children that makes all this possible. After giving out wonderfully hand carved toys to the children he and his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell) bid their friends goodbye, as they have more stops to make, and even though the weather is getting bad they can’t even think of disappointing the children who live on the other side of the forest. The storm intensifies and soon their reindeer collapses in exhaustion, as the snow whips around them, and Claus embraces his wife as the winter storm takes their lives.
The Northern Star appears and a magical cone of light descends on the frozen countryside, and out of it steps a large contingent of elves. Claus, his wife, and reindeer all wake up (resurrected?) as a group of colorfully dressed little people approach. They are led to their new home at the North Pole where they are informed by the Ancient Elf (Burgess Meredith) that Claus is “The Chosen One” and that he will fulfill the duties of the Prophecy.
When one delves to deeply into the how and the wherefore of Santa Claus things are going to get weird, it’s just best to explain as little as possible and get your plot moving along as quickly as you can, sadly that is not the case here. In this film we find out that the elves have been making toys for ages – possibly centuries – but with no one to deliver them they’ve just been stock piling them until The Chose One from the prophecy would arrive. Claus is told that he is to deliver these gifts to all the children of the world, and when he mentions the feasibility of such a task being accomplished by a man his age he is told that he will now live…forever.
Yeah, that’s not terrifying at all. Some poor schnook and his wife get caught out in a storm, are saved/resurrected by some creepy elves, and then told that they will now be working in the toy delivery business for all of eternity because of some prophecy. Sounds more like a cult then a magical workshop.
We are then treated to a montage of Santa Claus delivering toys to all the “children of the world” over the centuries, though as the dates climb closer and closer to modern times I start to doubt the veracity of the demands for just dolls and wooden toys. Are wooden ducks and wagons still all the rage?
When Santa receives a letter from a little girl, about how her brother tortures her cat, Mrs. Claus states that, “This boy should not get a present this year,” Santa is shocked by the suggestions, “You’ll have folks saying that Santa Claus only rewards the good little boys and girls,” and Mrs. Claus gives her rebuttal, “Isn’t that as it should be?” And good all Kris Kringle immediately caves and orders his elves to start making lists because making lists never goes wrong.
Note: The letters arrive magically at the North Pole, flying through the air to be deposited down the chimney of Santa’s workshop, so one must assume they don’t get to use this fireplace for things such as I don’t know…fire?
It’s not until about the 40 minute mark that the real plot of the movie starts to rear its ugly head, as a seemingly overworked Santa Claus promotes an elf named Patch (Dudley Moore) to assistant, but his radical ideas of mass production results in shoddily made toys and unhappy children on Christmas morning, and this causes a now disgraced Patch to run away to prove he is useful. Of course he ends up hooking up with the film’s villain, B.Z. (John Lithgow) an evil toy manufacturer who is being investigated by a Senate committee for producing dangerous products.
The other key players in this movie are Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick), a homeless kid who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, and Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim), a little rich girl who we later learns is being raised by her step-uncle (Is that even a thing?) who of course turns out to be the evil B.Z our villain dujour. The relationship that develops between Joe and Cornelia shifts from insulin shock inducing sweetness to kind of creepy, as the two kids are only about nine years old, but for me the most disturbing relationship is between Joe and Santa. As the movie progresses it seems that even though Santa has befriended Joe – Note: Later Joe states that he is Santa’s only friend which is just sad and also, “Suck it elves!” – but each year when Santa drops by to visit he never once asks about Joe’s homeless state. The kid is an orphan living on the streets and all Santa gives him is a carved sculpture of Patch the elf. That’s just dick!
The stakes get raised when B.Z. dupes poor Patch into staying around and manufacturing him magical treats, candy that allows the user to float up off the floor, and when this product becomes a Christmas hit, one that completely over shadows that old fashioned Santa Clause toy giving racket, B.Z. gets an idea, a wonderfully awful idea, that he can market a stronger dosed version of the magical treat that will allow kids to actually fly, and he will then release it on March 25th in what he will call Christmas 2. Who knew toy manufactures had the ability to create holidays, I thought that power was reserved for greeting card companies.
Aside from Santa being depressed at being upstaged – I myself would think he’d relish the idea of retirement by now – the real threat turns out to be that this new Christmas treat is dangerous and potentially lethal, as we learn that if it is placed near extreme heat it could explode. Joe is kidnapped by B.Z. for overhearing the plans to take over Christmas, because if word of that got out well…um…nothing would happen because that actually isn’t a crime, but then Cornelia overhears the exploding treat dilemma, which is a crime, she calls Santa for help – she also called 911 but she doubted the police would believe a child about such things.
Of course Santa will come to the rescue and B.Z. will be thwarted, but how this ending plays out is just plain weird, as Patch discovers Joe tied up and gagged in the factory boiler room and finally tumbles to the fact that B.Z. may not be all that nice of a guy, he and Joe decide to bring the treats to Santa at the North Pole, but unfortunately the cargo hold of Patch’s flying sled isn’t heat shielded so poor Patch and Joe are mere moments from exploding all over the arctic. Luckily Santa and Cornelia arrive in the nick of time and the day is saved, but what of B.Z., is he going to get his comeuppance?
The police arrive and arrest all of B.Z.’s associates, because judges love to issue warrants based on one phone call and no actual evidence, but this does panic B.Z. enough so that he chows down on the amped up flying magical treats, and escapes into the stratosphere.
So Christmas is saved, and everyone parties down at Santa’s work shop, but Joe wants to know what is to become of Cornelia, as her guardian is currently orbiting the Earth. Santa and Mrs. Claus agree that she can stay at the North Pole, at least until next Christmas, because no one will wonder whatever became of B.Z.s’ step-niece and his most likely sole heir. As for Joe, well nothing is mentioned but we assume that he is finally taken in by the Clauses and is still slaving away at the toy factory to this very day.
About the only real enjoyment I got out of this film was watching Lithgow hamming it up, with the evil cranked up to eleven, but as his character doesn’t show up until about the hour mark it’s really not worth the wait, and I haven’t even mentioned the awful puns we are subjected to, the never ending supply of elf puns that Patch tosses out at the drop of a hat. This films idea of humor is having Patch drop the letter “s” from the word “self” to make such amusing bon mots as “I’m elf-taught” or “It’s elf-explanatory” and this goes on for the film’s entire running time, and by the end of the film we are just begging for someone to ram a candy cane through Patch’s eye. That this film was marketed as a Dudley Moore vehicle makes it all the worse.
Like Salkind’s Supergirl this Christmas disaster just meanders around without purpose for most of it’s running time, and the film’s failure pretty much resulted in Jeannot Szwarc no longer working as a film director, but on the plus side he has made a decent name for himself now in episodic television with great work on such shows as Fringe and Scandal.
So if you’re looking for a good Santa Clause story to watch I advise a viewing of the Rankin and Bass Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,and give this big budget extravaganza a miss.
Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
The Salkinds attempt at a big budget origin story for Santa Claus fails on almost every level; the plot takes forever to get going, the villain is beyond over-the-top and Dudley Moore’s elf is just cringe inducing. The only way to survive this movie is with a good amount of elf-control.