The Santa Incident contains all of the necessary ingredients for a Christmas classic. Santa? Check. People who don’t believe in Santa? Check. Doubters being won over by Santa’s jolly benevolence? Check. Cute but mildly irritating kids? Check. Absentee father? Check. Over-worked single mother struggling to bring up her kids? Check. Santa being shot down by a military fighter jet and then being pursued by over-zealous Homeland security agents who want to kill him? Erm… check?
Moments after taking a side-winder to the face and being propelled skywards from his sleigh at a thousand miles an hour, Santa’s unconscious bulk thuds down on the cold concrete of a working dock. A young brother and sister skipping school save Santa from having his head crushed by a gargantuan piece of machinery, whereupon he’s whisked to hospital and nursed back to health by the children’s mother, Joanna (Ione Skye, giving an… interesting performance). She’s an actual nurse, which certainly helps with the nursing element.
Pretty soon, with Santa estranged from his elves and reindeer, and a duo of evil agents hot on his heels, Christmas itself is in jeopardy (apparently there is no Christmas without Santa, much to the chagrin of Jesus). Santa needs the family’s help, but along the way the family might just need his help to rediscover the magic of Christmas, and, of course, the magic of love. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Unfortunately – requisite schmaltz and delightfully quirky premise notwithstanding – The Santa Incident never really becomes greater than the sum of its bargain-bin parts. Here’s exactly why this ho-hum Hallmark mis-step will never be regarded as a Christmas classic…
It feels less than 0.02 per cent festive
The Santa Incident contains some of the least Christmassy locations ever to have been featured in a seasonal kids’ movie. It’s like somebody flipped a switch on an industrial-strength Dyson and used it to suck every last particle of festive cheer from the atmosphere.
The town itself, with its lonely lighthouse overlooking a bleak marina, brings to mind Stephen King’s Castle Rock. Things are little better indoors; the interior of the mother’s house looks like an MR James story set in IKEA: a hideously sparse and antiseptic condo that Howard Hughes himself would be proud to call home. A designer Christmas tree stands blinking in the corner of a room, exuding all the warmth of an embalmed Cylon with its feet nailed to the floor. The windows look out on the dark mass of the coastline, a landscape pregnant with foreboding and laden with the promise of eternal nothingness. There is no snow, only a ceaseless, bitter wind that blows without respite over the barren cliffs and docklands. You’re picturing the Christmas card, aren’t you?
Santa himself isn’t particularly Christmassy, either. He doesn’t even sport his trademark Coca-Cola-colours until the very end. For most of the movie he wears the same uniform as the long-term inmates in Orange Is The New Black (now that’s a cross-over we’d all love to see).
James Cosmo is a great actor, but thanks to his roles in Braveheart and Game Of Thrones he doesn’t seem jolly or wholesome enough to play Santa Claus. In Miracle On 34th Street I’d struggle to imagine Dickie Attenborough squeezing out a fart. I can all too easily imagine James Cosmo cleaving a man in two with a broadsword and then burning down a village. And that’s not very festive at all.
The mum’s motivations make very little sense
When her children selflessly rescue an old man from being crushed to death by industrial machinery, Joanna heaps scorn upon them. ‘You little bastards!’ her tone seems to convey. ‘Don’t you know that we let old men die in this family?’
Joanna’s approach to child safety is inconsistent, to say the least. She doesn’t believe that James Cosmo is Santa. She believes he’s a crazy old tramp, probably alcoholic, possibly dangerous. But that doesn’t stop her from immediately moving him into their family home and allowing him to take her kids out to lunch unsupervised while she goes to work the next day. Hey, Joanna, have you ever heard of a little thing called… the 1970s? Operation Yulelog on line one!
It’s not her fault, bless her. She’s too preoccupied with engaging in the most unconvincing, passionless, will-they-won’t-they romance with local sheriff and childhood sweetheart, Hank (Jonathan Kerrigan). Hank’s a straight-talking, dependable, salt-of-the-earth sort of guy, which is a long-winded and polite way of saying that he’s a crushing, substanceless bore.
The mother isn’t alone in being an awful parent; the unseen parent is just as terrible. Throughout the movie the young son keeps returning to the place where he and his absentee father used to spend quality time together. Is it a swing-park? The beach? A football field? Hmmmm… Close. It’s a derelict room in an abandoned warehouse that’s strewn with electrical cables and literally covered in gang graffiti. This isn’t where you come to bond with your son, my friend: this is where you come to dump a prostitute’s body. What the hell is wrong with this family?
The bad guys are… well, bad
Santa is doggedly pursued by two Homeland security agents, one of whom, Erickson – played by Ally McBeal’s Greg Germann – has been chasing Santa for years, believing him to be an alien terrorist. His side-kick, Cunningham, played by Sean McConaghy, is the weak-minded henchman who will do anything to please his boss: except, of course, behave like a normal human being.
They’re the classic comedy pairing: the supercilious, semi-psychopathic stickler and the bumbling baffoon. They’re Harris and Proctor from Police Academy; they’re Dick Dastardly and Muttley. They even look funny: Germann is a hybrid of a young Bruce Willis and Jim Carrey’s Grinch, while McConaghy looks like a genetic mish-mash of Andy Kaufmann and Officer Doofus from Scary Movie. Under these circumstance, how could the laughs fail to be coaxed from our mouths?
Quite easily, as it turns out.
The main problem is one of tone (although the woeful script deserves its fair share of the blame). One minute Erickson is a flustered, blustering boob, the next he’s channeling Stalin and threatening to make a woman and her family disappear with a phone call. A kooky little scene in which Cunningham is incapacitated by a kaleidoscope is followed by one in which Erickson bursts into a room spraying bullets at children. Moments later, he’s attempting to suffocate a child to death with his bare hands. Are kids supposed to laugh at this or be encouraged to embrace the horror of their own fragility? It’s like watching an episode of Sesame Street in which Oscar the Grouch takes a short break from reciting the alphabet to gleefully strangle a cat and slam its still-warm body into a bin, all of which is watched over approvingly by The Count, who’s busy counting the fingers on a dismembered hand. “Ha ha ha, I love to kill.”
The best scene in the movie has to be the one where Cunningham falls into the water. Because you see him losing his balance, and you see him wet afterwards, but you don’t see him actually falling in. All we see is the aftermath of a seemingly human-less splash. This teases the tantalising possiblity that the movie’s budget couldn’t stretch to the cutting-edge special effect of a man falling into some water.
Michael McElhatton is a magician
When Michael McElhatton, aka Roose Bolton from Game Of Thrones, first struts into the movie he oozes menace from every pore. Which is rather unfortunate, because he’s supposed to be one of the goodies. Roose is the fighter pilot who shot down Santa (I’m calling him Roose, okay, just deal with it), come to make amends and help save the day. He tries his best to conjure a Texan accent, but despite his best efforts he sounds like his mother was from South Africa and his father was from season 3 of Sons of Anarchy.
Most bizarrely of all, the characters keep thinking that Roose is capable of vanishing into thin air, even though he’s just an ordinary guy with no supernatural powers. When he shows up at the hospital to warn Joanna she’s in danger, Joanna panics and asks him to leave. Sheriff Hank shows up, but when Joanna turns around to point out her harasser… Roose is gone. He’s just… vanished. Hank doesn’t bother looking for him, even though he’s clearly only about three feet down the corridor.
Later, Roose goes to Joanna’s house to repeat the warning, only to be greeted by Joanna brandishing a pair of scissors. Joanna calls Hank, telling him it’s a home invasion, but when Hank shows up … ‘He’s… gone, Hank.’ But he’s probably still in the garden, right, Joanna? Right? I mean, he literally walked away. He didn’t vanish into thin air like some mythical wizard. Hank will definitely walk the six steps outside and catch him, because he’s a cop and that’s what a cop does when a sinister stranger frightens the woman he loves in her own home. Right Hank? Hank?
Hank just shrugs, kicks back and tucks into some apple pie. I believe Robocop would’ve done much the same thing.
The underwhelming yet frankly disturbing ending
Just as Santa is reunited with his elves – who are children, and not dwarves, because this is 2010 – and they’re all busy making toys and readying the reindeer for their annual Xmas jaunt, a heavily-armed SWAT team surrounds them, led by the maniacal Erickson. Santa defeats them by sprinkling them with a magic dust that instantly transforms them into teddy-bear-cuddling imbeciles with the minds of children. Nice work, Santa. No attempt to change their minds through the power of reason. Just instant recourse to bio-magical warfare. Plus, if there’s a hostage situation or a terrorist attack in town tonight, you’ve just rendered the city’s best line of defence utterly useless. Enjoy all that blood on your hands, my fat friend.
Never mind that, though. Hooray! Christmas is saved. Not only that, but Hank and Joanna finally share a kiss. You know, the nurse and the sheriff? Yeah, they were… you know, that whole will-they-won’t-they-thing that formed the crux of the movie? Ah, forget it. Just shrug, and then go find yourself a nice piece of apple pie.
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