Revisiting Santa Claus: The Movie

Dudley Moore stars in the huge budget Santa Claus: The Movie. We took a look back at what was supposed to be a 1980s blockbuster...

Santa Claus: The Movie is a hard film to write about it. It’s not very good, but it’s very, very pleasant and particularly harmless.

Part of my problem is that it feels like a bit of an underdog to me, just based on my memories of it from when I was a kid. I’ve always thought of it as a small made-for-TV movie that gets played on ITV on Christmas Eve. Only, it turns out, I’m wrong.

It was produced by the Salkinds shortly after they’d made Supergirl. They even brought the director of that film, Jeannot Szwarc (who also directed Jaws 2), on to helm Santa Claus: The Movie. If I was surprised to learn that it had a theatrical release, my jaw hit the floor every time I ran into the suggestion that it had been made with a budget of around $50m. It’s a figure I’m more than a little suspicious of.

In 1985, when Santa Claus: The Movie was released, Back To The Future came out and had a reported $19m production budget. The Goonies, in the same year, is thought to have cost about the same amount. Think back to the clock tower of Back To The Future or the pirate ship in The Goonies. Santa Claus: The Movie does not look like it cost more than those films combined.

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It would return less than half of $50m at the US box office and was met by unenthusiastic reviews (it currently sits at less than 20% on Rotten Tomatoes).

That was 30 years ago, though, and history has reframed Santa Claus: The Movie, changing it from big budget failure to a bit of a curiosity and a tradition. If I was seeing the film at a press screening and advising you on whether you should get yourself down to the cinema to see it, my write up would be, er, firmer. But while I found it odd at times, and I’m excited to talk about some of those quirks, in the context of seeing it now, it’s too nice and inoffensive to feel any malice towards. It’s obviously a bit naff, but it feels like an appropriate naffness. Sorry for saying naff.

Right, so the actual film then.

The first hour of the movie is essentially Santa’s origin story. I know, did we really need to see Santa-Man’s origin story again? (Also, I sat through the entire end credits and they didn’t even explain how it was linked to Thanos). Then it turns into the Christmas gift giving equivalent to a format war, as Santa competes with a private company to give children free toys at Christmas.

It opens with childless couple The Clauses bringing gifts to a local family, as they do every Christmas. Disaster strikes as they get caught up in a blizzard. Harrowing scenes ensue, as the two adorable reindeer that pull their sled collapse in the snow. Mr. Claus screams belligerently at them, but they don’t stir. He gives up and joins Mrs. Claus in the sleigh to sit together to quietly freeze to death. And a happy new year!

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Then, a ghost star appears in the sky, beckoning them into a glowing eternity. Either that it’s the moment a curse kicks in, one that would doom Claus to a lifetime of dashing around the world delivering presents to spoiled children while attempting to eat millions of biscuits and drink gallons of milk.

The forces of evil emerge from this sparkling death beacon. Or, elves appear from a bright light, to save the Claus’ and to expand on their heart-warming tradition of spreading Christmas cheer. Thinking about it, it’s probably the latter explanation.

“We’ve been expecting you for a long, long time” say the elves in a manner that evokes Hellraiser.

It’s obviously not fair to compare the elves to fetishist pain-worshipping demons. It’s apparent, early in, that this is a sweet film for people, especially families, who love Christmas. It’s genuine and heartfelt. It wasn’t made with obnoxious smartarses in their 30s in mind, and that’s probably the biggest thing they got wrong. Ahem.

So, Claus gets made into Santa (“You’ll live forever” the hellves tell him in a way that suggested it really might be a curse), and over the course of a hundred or so years, really gets into the groove of being Father Christmas. Good for him. We spend a chunk of time in Santa’s workshop, and it’s a really lovely, well designed looking set. It’s colourful and has a handcrafted look about it. It’s the kind of film set you’d buy at a Christmas market, if Christmas markets sold film sets, which they obviously don’t.

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We also spend some time with the reindeer here, and they look terrific too. They look mostly realistic, with just enough expression and softening to make them fun. They’re not quite Henson level, but they’re great. When it comes time for Santa to take flight, his elf squad feed the reindeer golden magic mix, causing them to have a glitter-flinging flying freak out. Santa calls them on “On Prancer, on Dancer, on Vixen and Nixon, on Teflon and Sprout, on Rudolph and Krang. Reindeer away!” Ok, look, I lost my notes. But off they fly. It’s all very Christmassy.

Most of the film is spent just establishing what Santa’s deal is. When they’re finally ready to kick off a story, it focuses on Patch, an ambitious elf played by Dudley Moore.

Patch tries to drag Christmas into the industrial age. What he lacks in ability he makes up for in ideas, blagging and rosy cheeks. Soon he has Santa’s workshop operating like a production line, even though he clearly hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing. He’s that bloke from around the office who keeps getting promoted even though no one can work out what he actually does, other than being friendly towards the boss. We see him create three things over the course of the film; a toy making machine, a lollipop that makes you fly and a magical candy cane. The toy making machine almost destroys Santa’s credibility, and had the candy canes gone been distributed there likely would have been thousands of deaths. Patch is rubbish.

Things all seem to get a bit confused as the film tries to introduce conflict. The plan is for Patch to deliver a toy he’s made in a flying spaceship car thing, all serving evil toy mogul John Lithgow’s plan to exploit Christmas by giving away their product for free. This is capitalism at its most stupid.

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John Lithgow plays the role as a pantomime villain, which, in the context of the film, is a good decision. At the start of the film his company is in trouble, as the dolls they make double nicely as Molotov cocktails. They aren’t just flammable; they appear to actually want to be on fire. Lithgow’s character is unrepentantly evil. He attempts to exploit Patch and cash in on Christmas, going so far as planning to introduce a Christmas 2 in March, where they will launch a second product and charge an excessive amount of money for it. Every word Lithgow speaks, and every expression he makes, all exaggerated, will clearly communicate to anyone of any age that this guy is an absolute rotter.

While all this is going on, Santa has become disillusioned. He complains that gift giving has been corrupted. People don’t give gives just to see the look in the other person’s eye any more, he complains. It’s a bit rich coming from the world’s most notorious hit and run gift giver. What’s your game here, Father Christmas? If that is your real name.

Anyway, it all ends up with Lithgow attempting to fly away from the police using magic and Santa rediscovering his mojo just in time to save Patch, performing a daring flying rescue that stops the meddling elf from plummeting to his death. Along the way, Santa meets a streetwise homeless boy, who he takes on briefly as his assistant (a great touch, as what kid wouldn’t have viewed the role as a kind of wish fulfilment?), and an unloved orphan girl. He brings them home to the North Pole, and he and Mrs Claus finally have the family they always wanted. No, shut up, you’re crying.

The film sort of ends happily, then, but we get no resolution for Patch. What are they meant to do with him? Over the course of the film he’s proved to be a well-meaning but dangerous menace. I guarantee that in the 30 years since he’s started at least 90 workshop fires by accident. I bet he’s tried to invent an iPad that’s made of discarded Gillette razors.

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As far as Christmas films go, Santa Claus: The Movie is quite different from Die Hard. It’s got less edge than a yoghurt. It all feels very old fashioned. But then, I suppose it’s old. That’ll do it. It’s just a soft, pleasant Christmas film. I can’t quite imagine what would drive someone to make a film like this, or how they apparently spent so much money doing so, but now that it’s here it’s hard to grumble about.

My considered conclusion, then, is that Santa Claus: The Movie is not particularly good but is quite nice.

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