Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Monday: Santa Claus

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1985 holiday classic Santa Claus: The Movie!

Okay, I'm purposely being kinda Scrooge-like in sarcastically referring to this movie as a "classic"; actually, Santa Claus: The Movie was a fairly notorious flop, coming from the blockbuster producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who of course gave us the Superman movies. But I wanted to do something Christmas-y for Movie Monday this year, and I had never seen the movie, and it was on Netflix WI, so...

Santa Claus: The Movie (I love how awkward that "The Movie" part of the title is) opens in the 14th century, focusing on a woodcutter named Claus and his wife, who regularly deliver toys to the children of a local village with the help of their reindeer. One night, the Clauses get caught in a particularly bad snowstorm:
It looks as though the nice couple and their reindeer are about to freeze to death, when they are rescued by...elves? Yes, elves, led by Patch, played by Dudley Moore:
The Clauses are taken to a glowing castle at the very top of the North Pole, filled with other elves. They are told it their destiny to provide the world's children with toys every Christmas Eve, which the elves will make. On his the eve of his first trip, Claus is renamed "Santa Claus" by the oldest elf of all, known as the Ancient One (Burgess Meredith):
Time passes, and of course Santa Claus becomes a legendary figure. When we find him again in modern times, Santa is growing increasingly tired, his workload now massive because of the world's ever-growing population. Two of the elves, Patch and Puffy, compete to become Santa's assistant. Patch has built a machine that makes toys at a faster rate, and wins the job, with no one knowing that the toys produced are shoddy.
Speaking of shoddy merchandise, around this time a toymaker known as B.Z. (John Lithgow) who is the subject of a congressional hearing over his dangerous, cheaply made toys:
When a bunch of Patch's toys fall apart on Christmas Day, he grows depressed, and leaves Santa's workshop. He ends up in New York, where he meets B.Z. and agrees to help him, not realizing B.Z. is only doing this to make a buck.

B.Z. is thrilled with Patch's inventions, like a lollipop that allows kids to fly (the Salkinds loved making people fly in their movies) and decides to market these items in March, in an attempt to create a "Christmas 2", which he will be face of--not only will it rehabilitate his image, but it will make him rich. Rich, I tells ya!

Patch invents a flying craft called the Patchmobile, which he plans to use to deliver his toys. Thanks to two scrappy kids who befriend Santa, he regains his faith about kids needing him, so he chases after Patch to stop him from distributing some magic candy canes that which will burst into flame if heated. Wait, what?
Santa catches up to Patch, with the help of some amazing flying acrobatics by the reindeer. All is forgiven, and Patch agrees to come back to Santa's workshop, along with one of the kids, Joe. Since Joe is an orphan, he is adopted by the Clauses and will live with them.

Meanwhile, B.Z., attempting to escape the police, eats some of the flying candy canes, which cause him to uncontrollably take off into the sky, and eventually into space:
sg B.Z. dies a slow death from asphyxiation*, Santa Claus: The Movie comes to and end. Merry Christmas everyone!

I was fourteen when Santa Claus: The Movie came out, feeling a bit too mature (hollow laugh) to see what was clearly a kids movie, so I didn't buy a ticket. But I remember being curious about it, simply because it was being done by the men who did the Superman films, which loomed large in my imagination (still do). Over time, the film's rep (along with the Salkind's) fell precipitously, so I basically just forgot about it entirely.

It's easy to see why: Santa Claus: The Movie is a gaudy mess. It's heart is in the right place, but it's simultaneously too dark and too silly to ever work. Who the hell wants to see a movie featuring a Kris Kringle riddled with self-doubt? David Huddelston (as Santa) does okay with what he's given, but the whole "inner life of Santa" angle seems misplaced. And at the other end of the movie is Lithgow, who is chewing the scenery as if all of it is made of gingerbread. He's sweaty, mean, and unpleasant, and having him essentially die at the end of the movie (*I was kidding about the asphyxiation of course; he'd mostly like freeze to death before suffocating) seems to violate every rule of Christmas movies, where the bad guy (Scrooge, the Grinch, etc.) has a change of heart and gets into the spirit of the season.

You could see why the Salkinds thought this was a good idea: they brought The Three Muskeeters successfully to the screen, topped that by taking on the Superman what was next? Who's "bigger" than Superman? Santa Claus is one of the few fictional(?) characters who is more widely known than the Man of Steel, and there were no rights fees to pay. A match made in heaven! 

Unfortunately, I think when you look back at their work, it's clear that when they hired a highly skilled director (as they did with Richard Donner), their throw-money-at-the-screen bombast could work. But when they tapped someone a little less talented, their movies just sank like stones. Santa Claus: The Movie was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who also helmed the insta-turkey Supergirl. Considering how badly that film flopped, you'd think the Salkinds would not have been so ready to hand the keys of another big-budget franchise to him; but they did. So no Santa Claus II for anyone!

Fun Fact: To further underscore how off the rails the Salkinds could be, apparently they originally approached John Carpenter--John Carpenter!--to direct Santa Claus: The Movie. Amazingly, he didn't turn down the offer immediately, even offering his choice of Santa (Brian Dennehy). But he and the Salkinds couldn't come to terms, and he left the project.

Just as odd, the Salkinds also offered the role of B.Z. to Harrison Ford! I simply cannot picture Han Solo himself playing a Donald Trump-esque evil toymaker, so I'm guessing they just went for the biggest movie star of the time, which Ford arguably was in 1985.

The mind reels at some alternate universe version of Santa Claus: The Movie, directed by John Carpenter and starring Harrison Ford. Kids living in that other dimension probably got to enjoy a truly bizarre Christmas classic.

For those who are gluttons for punishment, you can learn about this film's comic book adaptation (yes, there was one!) over on my blog All in Black and White for 75 Cents!

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