Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Christmas 2018: Christmas 15th

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Let's talk about remakes. More often than not, the films that are remade are not movies that had good ideas but flawed executions. That would just make too much sense. Instead, remakes are usually reserved for established classics. This reveals the cynical thinking behind far too many retellings, that studios are more interested in capitalizing on a recognized name than creative ideas. Being a seasonal classic, “Miracle on 34th Street” is a story that's been trotted out more than once around December time. The film was adapted as part of an hour-long anthology series, in both 1955 and 1959. In 1973, a feature length remake was broadcast on CBS. Yet the most well-regarded and well-known of the remakes is the one that graced theaters in 1994. I've even heard some people say they prefer this variation on the story over the original.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A Thanksgiving Day Parade that climaxes with the appearance of Santa, but is definitely unrelated to any other Manhattan-based Thanksgiving parades, is derailed at the last minute. The hired Santa is an incompetent drunk. That's when the parade director, a single mom named Doery, finds the perfect replacement. In fact, this Kris Kringle is so good, he claims to be the actual Santa Claus. Soon, he befriends Dorey's daughter, a girl skeptical of Santa's existence. Hired by the department store, Kris becomes a huge hit with customers and kids. Soon, though, a trumped up offense has Kris Kringle – and the existence of Santa Claus – becoming a legal matter.

John Hughes, during his later in life return to primarily screenwriting, is credited with writing this alongside the original film's George Seaton. (Who had been dead for twenty years by this point.) This goes to show you how close this remake is to the original. It follows more-or-less all the same beats. Many of the adaptations are cosmetic. A video camera appears briefly. Macy's wanted nothing to do with the remake and is replaced with the fictitious Cole's. Gimbels was long gone by this point, so “Shopper's Express” was invented. The biggest change director Les Mayfield and Hughes makes is the ending. Instead of the Post Office lugging hundreds of letters for Santa into the court room, a dollar bill and an ethically dubious speech about the United States recognizing God provides our resolution. It's a mawkish ending and far less satisfying than the letters.

The remake doesn't change the story so much as add more stuff to it. This is evident in the run times. The original runs 96 minutes. The remake is nearly two hours long. So the romance between Susan's mom and her love interest – now named Bryan – is given much more attention. We are even treated to a hugely unnecessary montage of the two on a date. Her refusal to accept his proposal adds some more (rather limp) dramatic tension to the second half. Mostly, the additions beef up the movie's bad guys. Cole's is threatened by a buy-out from Shopper's Express. The rival department store intentionally sabotages Kris Kringle, sending an agent to antagonize him into violence. This is a largely unnecessary addition, adding a cartoonish dimension to an otherwise realistic film. About the only addition that matters is spending a little more time with Kris during his stay in the mental hospital.

If this remake's existence can be justified for any reason, it's the cast. Two performers are perfectly cast. After coming out of retirement to play an incredibly warm part in “Jurassic Park,” Richard Attenborough would play the ultimate warm character here. And Attenborough nearly tops Edmund Gwenn's original portrayal. Attenborough has that perfect Santa Claus quality, projecting generosity and sweetness with every glance or smile. He also brings a little more humanity than expected, as Kringle clearly has his doubts some times. While little Natalie Wood might've been hard to top, Mara Wilson does an amazing job as Susan. She perfectly captures the “wise beyond her years” aspect, projecting a truly unexpected intellect. Both are so good that they make the entire film worth seeing. 

Les Mayfield, previously of “Encino Man,” directs the film. His direction is seasonally frosty but unimpressive, relying heavily on montages and establishing shots. The film was not that successful in theaters, opening number eight at the box office, but would become a favorite on television and video. As a stand alone motion picture... It's fine. Well made and totally inoffensive, it comes to life when Attenborough and Wilson are the focus. Yet it's an utterly unnecessary film, making no improvement over the original and telling more-or-less an identical story. You can watch it and you'll be alright but, unless you're averse to black and white cinematography, you'll do far better with the original. [6/10]

The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

As the seventies rolled on, Rankin/Bass really started to crank out the holiday specials. The company would produce a new Christmas special at least once a year, frequently more, for the rest of the decade. (They created three Easter specials around this time as well.) With this many productions rolling out so quickly, some of these latter day specials have slipped into obscurity. I’ll admit, I had never even heard of “The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow” before researching my watch list this December. Despite its obscurity, the special received a stand alone DVD release in 2012, meaning someone must have fond memories of it.

The title isn’t just repetitive but non-indicative. “The First Christmas” does not concern the origins of Christianity nor icy perspiration in December. Instead, it is set in a Catholic orphanage, long ago and far away. A trio of nuns, while painting Christmas cards (a modern invention for them), spot a little shepherd boy being struck by lightning. The boy, Lucas, is blinded by the strike. The nuns help him recuperate, as he continues to take care of his sheep and form friendships. As Christmas approaches, the boy is drafted into the nativity play. All the while, he dreams of a white Christmas.

“The First Christmas” is likely Rankin/Bass’ most down-to-Earth Christmas special. None of the animals - Lucas’ sheep, his dog Waggles - talk or dance. There’s no magic, bizarre plot turns, seasonal holiday icons, or obnoxious comic relief. There’s not even a colorful bad guy. The closest the special comes is a trio of boys that bully Lucas and even they are redeemed. Instead, the special is a lighthearted but fairly serious portrayal of a boy struggling with a disability and what happens at a church around Christmas. Lucas’ constant optimism in dealing with his condition, as well as the love he feels for his pets and those around him, is even somewhat touching. It’s a burst of seasonal good-feeling and surprisingly sincere about it. To the point where the sappy and miraculous ending feels totally earned.

“The First Christmas” achieves this while maintaining many of the Rankin/Bass trademarks. The stop-motion animation is creaky but cute. There are some songs. They range from forgettable, like “Save a Little Christmas for Christmas,” to pretty, like the title song, to anachronistic, like a 17th century nun singing “White Christmas.” Angela Lansbury plays our narrator, Sister Teresa, who actually plays a pivotal role in the story. I was utterly surprised by how good this was. Despite its overlooked status, “The First Christmas” ranks among Rankin/Bass’ best holiday specials. [7/10]

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