• U.S.

CINEMA: Too Much of a Gooey

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

SANTA CLAUS? OF COURSE WE BELieve in him. If we can believe in Newt Gingrich we can believe in anything. The real question is, Do we believe in Santa Claus movies? There are two on screens at the moment, and the best that can be said for them is that they offer a clear-cut choice: you can take your seasonal dose of sappy sentiment either in stuffy traditional or tacky modernist form. Miracle on 34th Street, as befits a remake we probably don’t need, offers us a Santa Claus cut along classic lines — round, twinkly and played with a nice, comforting restraint by the redoubtable Richard Attenborough. The Santa Clause presents us with an Anti-Claus, Tim Allen of Home Improvement, hard-edged, discomfitingly frenetic and spritzing cheerless one-liners.

Certainly Attenborough has the more agreeable role, since his Kriss Kringle is utterly secure in his identity. He knows he really is Santa Claus and hasn’t the slightest desire to be anyone else. How it is that he ends up defending himself in court when mean people question his sanity is a tale too familiar to relate once again: it has been available on television — in a less overbearing version — every Christmas season for almost a half-century. Given these circumstances, it betrays no secrets to say that aided by smart lawyering, shrewd media manipulation and a child’s faith, he beats a bum rap.

Allen, on the other hand, is obliged to play a man named Scott Calvin, a hard-charging, fast-rising toy-company executive who is pressed into service as a substitute St. Nick in circumstances at once too complicated and too stupid to explain. He finds to his dismay that the job is his for all eternity (that — Get it? — is the Santa clause buried in some fine print he didn’t get a chance to read), and he is understandably skeptical about whether taking over operations at the North Pole is a great career move. To achieve a happy resolution of his dilemma requires the intervention of insistent (and charmless) elves, much desperate plotting and a number of cheesy special effects.

Different as these movies are in tone and development, they both address the same basic issue. In The Santa Clause, Scott gets into trouble because he wants to rescue his son (Eric Lloyd) from the rationalism of his psychiatrist stepfather (Judge Reinhold), who keeps insisting that it is unhealthy for the boy to believe in fantasy figures. In Miracle, Kriss has to perform the same task for Susan Walker (Mara Wilson), whose Mom (an overchilled Elizabeth Perkins) represents unyielding reason.

Risking Scrooginess, one might observe that commonsensical immunity to whimsy may be a bore, but even when carried to the grim lengths exhibited here, it’s not a major cause of familial dysfunction. But forget that; we don’t go to the movies, especially Christmas movies, expecting much in the way of useful social commentary. What’s really wrong with these pictures — Attenborough’s sweet, smart performance aside — is that their sentiments are completely predictable and completely unfelt. They’re just the standard seasonal slush. You can get the same emotional and imaginative kick staying home and rereading your Christmas cards.

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