It’s a pretty good title, isn’t it? For those of us who love a bit of science fiction the thoughts of Doctor Who it brings to mind bodes well; a movie about a time-travelling Santa saving Christmas from aliens could be brilliant. In fact, it’s such a good idea it’s been done before, but what Christmas idea hasn’t? But hold your sci-fi horses: Santa Who? is going off in a different, but equally as well-worn, direction.
I’m not against amnesia as a plot device, and since we’ve already agreed that fresh ideas and Christmas movies rarely go together it seems no reason to call it a bad movie straight off the bat. Here’s the general gist of it: Santa (Leslie Nielsen) falls off his sleigh and bumps his head on the car of one extremely grinchy Christmas-hater news reporter called Peter Albright (played by Steven Eckholdt). In order to avoid a lawsuit Peter bundles amnesiac Santa up to his girlfriend’s apartment and finds him a job as a Santa impersonator – after all, he’s already wearing the suit. But his girlfriend’s son thinks this might possibly be the real Santa, and that means there will be no Christmas if this kindly but traumatised old man can’t be made to remember his true identity.
The main character here is not Santa but Peter, who will undoubtedly come to love Christmas by the end of the movie. He’s a Scrooge and a half. He hates not only Christmas but any form of long-term commitment, and really hates his girlfriend’s son. When she asks Peter how he intends to be in a relationship with her without liking her son, he replies, “Have you thought about boarding school?”. This line, taken out of context, might sound fairly humorous, in the way that Bill Murray would make such a line humorous, but in fact all it did was make me really hate Peter Albright. He’s horrible. Everyone in the first thirty minutes of the movie is quite horrible. Even Santa has a good old moan about how Christmas isn’t like it used to be and that kids today are spoiled and nasty and he wants to pack it all in and go on a long holiday. Everyone is self-obsessed and whiny.
If you can get through this early section of overboard exposition in which the spirit of Christmas is killed stone dead then you might find it, well, not exactly coming back to glorious energetic life but certainly recovering enough to sit up. Leslie Nielsen doesn’t really get a lot to do, but when he is given a funny line he makes you laugh. In his amnesiac state he has an endearing benign confusion, and is good-hearted enough to make you feel a little bit of a warm glow as he bumbles about relearning how to say ho ho ho! in a convincing manner.
Perhaps it’s because the film is so starved of pleasant moments early on that I found myself feeling quite moved at times, and also I enjoyed the touches of surrealism that were surprising. Santa’s elves turn up to find him, and they seemed to be in their own crime drama, wearing raincoats and giving a good cop/bad cop routine as they questioned suspects in Santa’s disappearance. Did it make any sense? Not really, but it easily beat spending time in the company of Peter Albright, who does indeed learn to believe in the magic of Christmas by the end (I don’t think I’m spoiling the movie by revealing this) but somehow makes that look like an unpleasant chore. Do we really think he has suddenly learned to love kids, particularly the odious offspring of his girlfriend? No. We do not.
While I’m listing the film’s faults, I should also add that the special effects are really bad, particularly the unconvincing computer-generated reindeer. I suppose that goes without saying, though. Also I found an unpleasant tone to some of the verbal jokes that made me wince. In summary: If you’re looking for a perfect undiscovered Christmas gem of a film, this isn’t it.
Still, there’s a bit of slapstick, a bit of singing, a bit of weirdness, and Nielsen occasionally made me laugh. How sad that I’m prepared to call it an acceptable Christmas movie on such meagre grounds. It just goes to show that the modern world is a horrible place after all, with so little decent joyful movie experiences to go round. Santa was right before the amnesia struck – Christmas used to be much better than this. Didn’t it?
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