Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 23, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: The Santa Clause (1994)


Recently, I was having a conversation about movies that were clearly conceived as titles first and screenplays second. “The Santa Clause” came to mind immediately. The premise, of a deadbeat dad becoming Santa Claus, is staggeringly high concept. The film came out when I was just a kid and I remember the trailers and TV spots vividly. As people my age are prone to do, “The Santa Clause” is sometimes regarded as a nostalgic, holiday classic. Even as a kid, I never much cared for this one. I think I rented it, watched it once, and have rarely returned to it. It certainly isn't a perennial Christmas favorite in my house. And yet, for reasons I will soon explain, the film resides in my DVD collection. If I'm not a fan of “The Santa Clause,” why do I own it?

Meet Scott Calvin, a successful toy company executive, a recent divorcee, and father of six year old Charlie. Scott isn't a fan of his ex-wife's new boyfriend, a psychologist, and worries about the effect the hyper-rational man is having on the boy. For one example, Charlie is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. While staying with his dad over the holidays, the boy witnesses Santa first hand. After investigating, Scott sees him too. The gift giver falls from the roof, seemingly perishing. Scott is convinced to put on the suit and soon finds himself assuming the duties of Santa Claus. Over the next year, Calvin slowly transforms into the symbol of Christmas, his ex-wife increasingly disturbed by his seasonal obsession.

“The Santa Clause” hit theaters in 1994, around the third or fourth season of “Home Improvement.” This was around the time, one assumes, that Tim Allen's star power was at its highest. Slotting the stand-up turned Tool Man into a family-friendly holiday comedy like this made a lot of sense financially. The film's box office success proves that. However, Allen's sarcasm heavy comedy style seems like an odd fit for a Christmas movie. At the beginning, Scott Calvin is an asshole. He constantly undermines his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend in various mean-spirited ways. Weirdly, Judge Reinhold doesn't play the character as a bad guy. He's actually rather reasonable, if a little stiff. Yet we're meant to sympathize with Scott. Allen's character is often overly curt with his son as well. When he's forced into the Santa position, he grumpily goes through the motions, irritated and grouchy. This is rather at odds with the saccharine tone the film is going for.

In truth, “The Santa Clause” raises some unsettling questions. This is, one must admit, a Christmas movie that begins with Santa Claus falling to his death. The elves, upon meeting Calvin, seem unaffected by the previous Santa's passing. Does the Claus position change hands often? Does it always happen via violent death? Upon donning the suit, Scott's body undergoes a drastic transformation. He puts on weight and grows a beard. That's weird but the way his personality is assimilated by the Santa persona is far creepier. Calvin becomes naturally jolly and develops a love for everything Christmas-y. This is lousy screenwriting – the protagonist overcomes his problems through outside influences, instead of personal growth – but also odd. This is less like a clause and more like a curse, passed from one victim to the next. Weirder still, the film runs with some of these disturbing connotations, when Scott essentially kidnaps his son. Even though the police pursue him, the ex-wife ultimately doesn't press charges. In fact, she grants him anytime visitation rights!

“The Santa Clause” begins with sardonic one-liners but quickly gives way to typical holiday movie schmaltz. When visiting the North Pole, the protagonist meets a legion of elves, played by child actors in make-up. They drink perfect hot coco and are gifted magical snow globes. The production design is admittedly impressive but the story rushes into this development, leaving the characters and audience confused. Even though he just got the gig, the elves are loyal to the new Santa. One especially lame sequence is devoted to them donning jet packs and rescuing the guy from police custody. (Even though, I must point out again, he actually did commit the crime of kidnapping.) By the last act, all the farting reindeer and fat jokes have disappeared, replaced by an undistinguished message about the magic of Christmas and forgiveness.

Why Do I Own This?: I actually have a good answer to this question, for once. The film was, at some point, gifted to me by a relative. And not a distant relative either but the type that came to visit frequently. The type that would actually check to see if I kept the gift she had given me. Essentially, I've been guilted into keeping a film I don't especially like. Hopefully, I'll still find a covert way to make the DVD disappear, some day. As for “The Santa Clause” itself, it's a mediocre flick. I suspect nostalgia, and frequent television screenings, plays the biggest role in whatever reputation it has as a December classic. Thankfully, I don't own any of the two dire looking sequels, so I won't have to review them at any point in the future. [5/10]

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