When looking up the creator credits after watching Santa Claus: The Movie, it was not surprising at all to find that screenwriters David and Leslie Newman had the first three Superman films in their resumes, nor that director Jeannot Szwarc’s immediately previous film had been Supergirl. Santa Claus: The Movie strongly resembles those films in its narrative structure, as strange as it may sound to think of superhero story conventions in connection with the jolly fat man. Like Superman: The Motion Picture, Santa Claus: the Movie starts with the main character’s origin story, then has a flash forward to the hero having to deal with the machinations of an evil businessman. Also both stories feature some heartwarming elements (obligatory in this case), and a healthy dose of humor — provided in this film by Dudley Moore, who gets top billing despite not playing the title role.
Even the film’s marketing seems to play up to this resemblance, with the tagline “Seeing is Believing” being a little reminiscent of “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly”, and the other tagline “The Legend Comes to Life” evoking a sense of larger-than-life grandeur.
Of course, delivering all those presents would require that he be faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The “superhero movie” structure works surprisingly well for a story that is, in other respects, a fairly traditional Christmas movie. It starts off showing Claus (David Huddleston) and his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell) delivering Claus’s hand-crafted toys to the children of their village several hundred years ago. Tragedy strikes on the sleigh ride to the other side of the forest, as a blizzard leaves them unable to move forward, and in danger of freezing to death. While it’s quite likely some children will be traumatized by watching the beloved holiday icons slowly dying, they are soon saved by the arrival of elves, who have been waiting for “the Chosen One” for several centuries. Magically whisked away to the North Pole, Claus is dubbed “Santa” and one of the most senior elves (Burgess Meredith) explains what his new role in life will be — as well as the fact that he will now be immortal and endowed with magical abilities to perform his duties.
One of Santa’s main helpers is the elf known as Patch, played by Dudley Moore. Patch is mechanically inclined, but naive and a bit of a bungler; Moore provides the bulk of the comedy in the film. He also provides the impetus for the second half of the plot, as Patch goes out into the world in the 20th century to prove his worth as an assistant to Santa Claus. Here he innocently falls in with the toy manufacturer B.Z., who is looking for a new hit toy to produce after Congress has made his company recall all its products — which includes teddy bears stuffed with sawdust and nails. B.Z. provides a lot of the comedy as well, contrasting Patch’s lighthearted humor with some hilariously over-the-top villainy, played by master ham John Lithgow. The incredible pettiness of B.Z. and his evildoing just for the sake of evil may be a bit cartoonish, but that’s not a mark against this film — the film cheerfully rolls with it, knowing that any credible villainy would perhaps be too dark for a family Christmas film.
A man who would steal 40 cakes and not feel terrible.
Any Santa Claus movie is going to involve kids at some point, and here the role is filled with a young boy and girl (Christian Fitzpatrick and Carrie Kei Heim) and their developing friendship with each other and Santa Claus. The theme of children and making a family that life hasn’t provided is rather clear here, and is explicitly mentioned at one point by Santa Claus himself, when he says that Joe is a lot like the son he and Anya never had. Claus and Anya worked so hard at giving gifts to the children of their village, and later the world, due in part to their own childless state. Joe, meanwhile, is an orphan living on the street. Tough, and apparently able to make it at least a few years on his own, but not so above it all that he doesn’t immediately start marveling at the wonder of it all when Santa makes himself known to him and proves he is who he says he is. Cornelia is also an orphan, though a rich one instead of a poor one; she lives with a nanny who is strict but seemingly well-meaning, and a step-uncle of whom she says “he probably doesn’t even know what grade I’m in.”
The film was released in 1985, and the special effects are going to look dated to a modern viewer. However, this somehow adds to the charm of the film; it feels right that the magic doesn’t look quite real. It’s kind of like looking at a postcard painting of a Christmas scene superimposed over realistic movie scenes (which is probably not far off from the truth, considering how visual effects were made at the time). The effects used to make Donner’s sarcastic expressions hold up well, looking more like a natural part of the action. And the set design for the North Pole and Patch’s creations are a delight to look at. On the auditory front, sound and music are used to superb effect, and the songs include both original creations and Christmas classics.
Santa Claus: The Movie is a lot of fun, and it’s hard to picture anybody who likes Christmas movies not appreciating it. It’s that rare instance of a film where any flaws or cheesy aspects add to its charm.