Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 12, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 11

I Am Santa Claus (2014)

Like many American tradition, Santa Claus is one of those things everyone is familiar with and has experienced. Millions of people have been taken to malls or shops as kids, sitting on Santa Claus' lap, telling him what they want for Christmas, and getting their picture taken. But what about those men who play Santa Claus? What are their stories? The documentary “I Am Santa Claus” seeks to answer these questions. The film follows several Santa Clauses over a year, leading up to December, showing how they came to play the bearded icon and the effect it has had on their lives.

It, in particular, follows one specific man as he suits as Santa Claus for the first time. I've never watched pro-wrestling but even I know who Mick Foley is. In the ring, he's notorious for how much punishment he can take. Yet the brutal wrestler has a soft spot for Christmas. “I Am Santa Claus” partially tracks Foley's transformation into Santa Claus. How much he loves and respects the character is evident, as is the clear joy making kids happy brings him. Some of these moments are interesting, such as Mick dyeing his beard or trying on different wigs. Yet this also leads to the film's sappiest moment, when Foley engineers a visit from Santa for his youngest kid. Much of the film seems off-the-cuff and natural but this conclusion seems scripted.

Foley's journey to become Santa is fine but what's really interesting about “I Am Santa Claus” is the different men who have donned the red suit. They all have a love for Christmas and the required amount of jolliness. Yet they are very different people. Throughout the film, we meet a group of explicitly Christian Santas. They sing religious versions of secular Christmas songs and put a unique Santa-fied spin on the gospel. Another Santa Claus has a passion for barbecue and is attempting to start a restaurant business. (His trademark dish is barbecued ravioli which, admittedly, sounds interesting.) One Santa has legally changed his name to Santa. He describes his life before he became a Claus. How he was a big, tattooed, bearded guy that most people found intimidating. When he dyed his beard white, suddenly everyone started treating him kindly. Because everyone can approach Santa Claus.

By going behind the beard and red suit, “I Am Santa Claus” allows us to see the real men playing the part. Expectantly, real life is not always holly jolly and G-rated. One of the first Clauses we meet is a soft-spoken, genuinely sweet man who happens to be gay. He's active in the “bear” community and even attends a “bear” convention. While his life sometimes veers towards the randy, he's in a long distant relationship with a man he loves dearly. The guy is so sincere and sweet, elevating every scene he's in. Another Santa – the recently elected president of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas because, yes, such a thing does exist – admits to attending a sex club with his wife on the weekends. A fact which does not sit well with everyone. Another scene shows one of the Santas on his birthday, which happens to fall on St. Patrick's Day, getting increasingly shit-faced, telling vulgar stories.

Not only does one Fraternity of real Bearded Santas exist, there are actually rival organizations. Yes, there is a political side to being a Claus. One notable scene is devoted to two Santas discussing whether an atheist or a Muslim could be Santa Claus. “I Am Santa Claus” also focuses on the economic realities of playing the part. Some of the men have day jobs, working in real estate or in antiques. Others attempt to spin their bearded career into other lines of work, like a Santa who cuts a CD of Christmas songs. Or the ones that do personal appearances at parties. At least one of the Santas doesn't have that luck. His agent struggles to get him jobs. He subsists on social security throughout most of the year. He can't even afford to move into a trailer, having an unsuccessful yard sale in an attempt to raise the funds. All of which raises an interesting point: When you only work one month a year, it's probably tricky to keep food on the table.

“I Am Santa Claus” isn't out to shatter the illusion of Santa. The Clauses in the film are very different people but they're all united by their love of the holiday, by the sincere enjoyment of the job. The film is just making the point that it's real guys behind the red caps, with foibles, quirks, and kinks like any other person. (The movie even points out that Christmas itself is a rather lonely day for a Santa, as he can't be seen out in public.) While the stuff with Mick Foley is fine, sweet even, “I Am Santa Claus” probably would've been better served by focusing solely on the eccentric, fascinating people who take on the job title of Santa Claus. [7/10]

Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1974)

In my house, Rankin/Bass’ “Frosty the Snowman” is more-or-less a December tradition. But Frosty’s adventure didn’t end there. For years, I’ve heard of a sequel to “Frosty the Snowman” but this is the first time I’ve watched it. In “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland,” the magical snowman is getting lonely at the North Pole. He misses the friends he made last December. Luckily, winter has rolled around and he’s able to return to the village. He this still doesn’t cure his loneliness. So the kids build him a snow-wife, bringing her to life with a sincere act of love. The Bride of Frosty is named Crystal. (Shelley Winters is cast as Crystal, presumably because of the irresistible pun her late name creates.) The two snow-people are so popular that Jack Frost, the elemental spectre of winter, gets jealous.

Despite being a direct sequel, “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” follows up on few of the original’s plot points. One of my favorite things about the original “Frosty” is the snowman’s relationship with Karen, the little girl he befriends. Disappointingly, Karen doesn’t return in “Winter Wonderland.” She’s replaced with an unnamed redheaded girl. Even though Frosty refers to his kids are his old friends, none of them appear to be the same children from the first special. The talking rabbit, antagonistic magician, and Santa Claus himself are all absent. Not even Jimmy Durante returns to narrate, with Andy Griffith taking his place. I guess this is what I get for expecting tight continuity from seventies Christmas specials.

Instead, “Winter Wonderland” is focused on the relationship between Frosty and his newly made wife. Their union raises some disturbing questions. When Frosty was made, his personality was just taking shape. Crystal, meanwhile, comes to life already aware that she loves Frosty. Truthfully, there’s something kind of creepy about Frosty designing a wife, to his specification, presumably destined to forever love him. The Bride of Frosty allows the sequel special to repeat many of the first film’s sequences. The belly-flopping, the march through the village, and the fear of melting away are all reprised. For bonus points, the special throws in references to other Christmas carol. Parson Brown is summoned to marry the snow-people but, weirdly, he declares this illegal. Instead, a snow parson is created to wed the snowlems. What does one make of the clergy approving of such blatant witchcraft?

Once Crystal is brought to life, “Winter Wonderland” generally lacks conflict. Jack Frost, naturally voiced by the prolific Paul Frees, isn’t much of a villain. His motivation, jealous that Frosty is getting the attention he feels is owed him, is petty even by Rankin/Bass’ standards. His master plan amounts to extending winter indefinitely, which the children allow so Frosty can stick around. How do they undo this sinister plot? Um, they ask him nicely to stop. Though Winters and Jackie Vernon are perfectly cast, there’s a reason “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” is overlooked during most Decembers. [6/10]

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