Santa Week Day 3: David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Santa Claus the Movie PosterNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Jeannot Szwarc

Writers: David Newman & Leslie Newman

Cast: David Huddleston, Judy Cornwell, Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, Burgess Meredith, Jeffrey Kramer, Christian Fitzpatrick, Carrie Kei Heim, John Barrard,

Plot: On a Christmas Eve many years ago, a kindly, childless old couple named Claus and Anya (David Hudleston and Judy Cornwell) are lost in a snowstorm. Their reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, collapse from exhaustion, and it seems as though they are lost, frozen to death, until a star shines through the blizzard and reveals a secret community of elves. The elves have been waiting for them, for a very long time – a good-hearted toymaker with no children of his own to take on their eternal mission of delivering toys to all the children of the world.

One of the elves, Patch (Dudley Moore) prepares Claus’s reindeer to join their own, with a magical feed that enables them to fly. The next Christmas Eve, after a blessing from special guest star Burgess “Ancient Elf” Meredith, Claus begins his work. Over centuries, which we pass through by way of convenient montage – we see the legend of Santa Claus spread throughout the world, before we finally arrive in the slick, modern utopia of the 1980s. After centuries at work, Anya convinces Santa to appoint an assistant, a task which quickly turns into a competition. Patch suggests converting the toy workshop to a modern, state-of-the-art, fully automated assembly line, while Dooley (John Barrard) wants to keep making toys the old-fashioned way. Patch easily wins, but nobody realizes the machine has malfunctioned, resulting in a large number of defective toys.

In modern New York we meet Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick), a homeless boy who is given food on Christmas Eve by a wealthy girl named Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim). Santa notices Joe while he makes his rounds, and decides to take the boy for a ride – even taking him through a failed attempt at an old trick, “the Super Dooper Looper,” that Donner has never quite been able to pull off. Joe rides with Santa until they come to Cornelia’s house, where she offers to give Joe more food, and Santa encourages him to stay and eat, promising to see him again next Christmas. The next morning, Patch’s toys begin falling apart, and children all over the world turn on Santa. Patch, dejected, resigns as Santa’s assistant and flees the North Pole, hoping to find a way to redeem himself.

Traveling to New York, Patch sees a line of B.Z. Toys flying off the shelf, unaware that they’re being recalled for being cheap and dangerous. He tracks down the head of the company, B.Z. (John Lithgow) and offers to team up on a free giveaway for next Christmas, something that will show Santa his self-worth and that B.Z. sees as an opportunity for much-needed positive publicity. On Christmas Eve, Patch stars in a global commercial to announce his present – a lollipop mixed with the reindeer’s flying powder. B.Z., triumphant, returns home, where his step-niece Cornelia is watching the commercial along with the rest of the world. That year, as Santa delivers his toys, Patch drops off the magic candy in his own high-tech sleigh. Although many children have lost faith in Santa, he meets up with Joe again and gives the boy his first ever Christmas present – a wooden carving of an elf, made by Santa himself, who unconsciously carved the likeness of his missing pal Patch.

The lollipops allow children to float in the air, and Patch becomes an instant celebrity. When he announces his intention to return to the North Pole, B.Z. convinces him to stick around long enough to make a sequel to their hit – a candy cane more potent than the lollipop. Joe gets up sick and hides in Cornelia’s basement, but is found by a boasting B.Z. Things get worse when B.Z.’s flunky, Towzer (Jeffrey Kramer) tells him he discovered – the hard way – when the concentrated candy canes are exposed to heat, they explode.

Cornelia writes Santa and tells him Joe is in trouble. Santa sets out for a rescue mission down two reindeer – Comet and Cupid have the flu. Patch, meanwhile, finds Joe tied up in B.Z.’s basement. He doesn’t believe that Joe is truly a friend of Santa’s until he sees the carving Santa gave him, then the two of them set out for the North Pole together, not knowing the candy canes in the back of Patch’s super sleigh will explode when they heat up. Santa and Cornelia catch up to them at the last minute, as the candy blows up, and the reindeer pull off the heretofore impossible Super Dooper Looper to save them. B.Z., meanwhile, is tracked down by the police and gobbles candy canes to escape – but overdoses, rocketing to space. Santa offers to let Joe stay at the North Pole with him, and Joe asks if Cornelia can stay too… at least until next Christmas.

Thoughts: I was nine when this movie came out, old enough to start feeling cynical about things like Christmas and Santa Claus. And yet this movie never gave me that reaction. From the very beginning, there was something about David Huddleston’s performance as Claus that rang so wonderfully, beautifully true. I don’t know, maybe this is one of those cases where I’m watching the movie through rose-colored nostalgia goggles, but as I sit here almost 30 years later, watching it on the couch with my wife, I find it as sweet and charming as I did when I was a kid, eagerly awaiting the McDonald’s tie-in merchandize. (The product placement is actually pretty obvious now.)

As I got older, I started to realize that one of the reasons I loved this movie so much is because it’s not really the story of Santa Claus. It is in fact – and bear with me now, I can back this up – a remake of Superman: The Movie, which was also produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind and which follows a very similar formula. The movie begins with the introduction of the hero, a seemingly unsurmountable cataclysm, and the revelation that the protagonist is in fact being gifted with great power. We watch as he grows and develops his abilities, and the real villain and main plot isn’t even introduced until nearly the halfway point. Even the movie’s tagline, “Seeing is believing,” echoes Superman’s “You will believe a man can fly.” The Salkinds simply tried to make lightning strike twice, and damn if it didn’t work – at least on me.

Amazingly, Huddleston got third billing in this movie, after the more marketable Dudley Moore and John Lithgow. And don’t get me wrong, both of them are very good – Moore is a silly, loveable scamp with a pure heart, and Lithgow is chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow, but appears to be having the time of his life while he’s doing it. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for Huddleston’s performance. The energy and charm he brings to the role is one of the benchmarks I’ve judged other Cinematic Santas against ever since. From the start, he and Judy Cornwell are completely believable. I helps, I think, that they kick things off with a scene of them as mortals, already delivering toys to children, before they “die” in the snowstorm (and let me tell you, that part freaked out my wife, who hasn’t seen this movie in a very long time and didn’t remember much of it). That moment tells us who these people are, even before they meet their destiny, and like any true superhero origin story, that’s a vital part of believing the mythology.

Although this isn’t a musical, music plays a big part of the film. Henry Mancini steps in here to deliver a truly lovely piece of music, themes for Santa and the North Pole workshop that feel almost traditional, almost ancient, but still snappy and modern. The movie uses several montage sequences, and Mancini’s music pulls you straight through them one at a time. The set design at the North Pole workshop is also perhaps my favorite version of any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s bright and insanely colorful, to be certain, but everything is made of wood and has a handcrafted quality that other Santa films (such as The Santa Clause) don’t come close to matching.

Okay, admittedly, in retrospect certain things are a little hard to swallow. The notion that Santa suddenly chooses one homeless kid to take an interest in after centuries of ignoring them seems a bit convenient, for example. And if any child as trusting as Cornelia existed in the real world, she’d be the subject of an Amber Alert before you can say “Ten Lords A-Leaping.” Also, I suppose Santa is technically a kidnapper at the end, and they never entirely explain why the cops bust in on B.Z., necessitating he escape. But John Lithgow as the sleazy toymaker is 100 percent believable, except for the part where he suddenly becomes hellbent on Santa’s destruction for no apparent reason.

This is a case, though, where I can honestly get past that. Although the plot is a little shaky in the second half, the depiction of Santa himself and his workshop is absolutely flawless, and the whole movie has stayed with me for years.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on December 24, 2014, in 4-Icons, Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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