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Santa Week Day 4: Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)

Santa ClauseNote: 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: John Pasquin

Writers: Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick

Cast: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenberg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Frank Welker

Plot: Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is your typical Christmas movie businessman, an executive who just doesn’t seem to have time for his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), putting the burden of the parenting task on his ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) and her new psychiatrist husband, Neil (Judge Reinhold). After a disastrous Christmas dinner, Scott and Charlie hear noises outside. When Scott goes to investigate, he sees a man in a Santa suit on his roof. Startling him, the Santa slips, falls from the roof, and dies. I would like to remind everyone reading this that we are discussing a PG-rated Disney family film.

Scott finds a card in Santa’s pocket that instructs him to put on the Santa suit, and that “the reindeer will know what to do.” He looks up to see a sleigh and reindeer on the roof, then back down to find the Santa suit, empty of its late owner. The reindeer whisk Scott and Charlie from house to house, and Charlie convinces his father to put on the suit and take over Santa’s job. When the night ends, the reindeer bring the Calvins to the North Pole. The head elf, Bernard (David Krumholtz), gives Charlie a snow globe and explains to Scott what he’s gotten himself into: the card in Santa’s pocket was a legally-binding document with a clause – a Santa clause, get it? — stating that when Scott put on the Santa suit, he took on the job of Santa Claus. Bernard tells him he has 11 months to get his affairs in order before returning to the North Pole to prepare for next Christmas.

As school starts again, Charlie begins telling everyone his dad is the new Santa Claus. Laura and Neil try to logically convince him that Santa doesn’t exist, and when Scott tries to tell him the same thing, he blanches at the idea of ruining his son’s Christmas spirit and, instead, asks him to keep it a secret. Scott starts gaining weight, growing a beard, and watching his hair turn white. He has an insatiable desire for sweet, sugary food. Laura and Neil, worried that Scott is forcing a physical transformation to keep Charlie’s affections, petition with the court to revoke Scott’s visitation rights. Scott visits him anyway on Thanksgiving, as Bernard arrives to take him to the North Pole. They take Charlie with them, and the police find themselves on a search for the boy abducted by Santa Claus.

Charlie introduces several new innovations that Scott employs on Christmas Eve, and together they go out to make their rounds, but he’s nabbed by the police when he visits Neil’s house. The elves break him out and they return Charlie to his mother. Laura realizes Charlie has been telling the truth, and she burns the custody papers, inviting Scott to visit any time he wants. The police – and everyone else on the block – arrive just in time to see Scott take off from the roof in his sleigh. Later, after everyone has left, Charlie summons Scott back with Bernard’s snow globe, and Laura gives her blessing for him to join his dad for a quick ride in the sleigh.

Thoughts: The English teacher in me has great reason to despise this film. For the past 20 years, we have been subjected to outbreak after outbreak of people spelling Santa Claus’s name with an “E” at the end, and I place the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of Tim Allen and the Walt Disney Corporation and Shadow Government. However, in the interest of cinematic integrity, I promise to try to put that righteous anger aside for the remainder of this article, that I may discuss The Santa Clause in an unbiased fashion.

This was Tim Allen’s first big movie role, breaking from his hit sitcom Home Improvement, although the differences between Tim Taylor and Scott Calvin aren’t as pronounced as you might hope. Early on the film relies on a lot of Allen’s TV shtick – for example, a scene where he destroys Christmas dinner turns into an impromptu demonstration on why to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Santa’s trademark “Ho Ho Ho” sounds suspiciously like the Tool Time grunts Allen used on his show-within-a-show. Even the director of the movie, John Pasquin, is a veteran of Allen’s sitcom (and would team up with him on many other movie and TV projects over the years).

That’s not to say his performance was bad. But it’s very different from pretty much any other version of Santa Claus. That’s understandable. This is one of the movies that plays off the “Santa Legacy” trope (more on that soon), so Allen isn’t exactly playing the same character as Edmund Gwenn, John Call, or David Huddleston. Rather than playing the Santa Claus, he’s playing a man who is attempting to accept his new role as a Santa Claus. It’s a fine distinction, but it’s one worth making, and it allows Allen a little more leeway in creating his own character instead of living up to the idea of Santa Claus. What’s impressive, then, is how he slowly transforms over the course of the film. He begins as a grumpy cynic who wants to maintain the magic of Christmas for his son, but eventually converts to a joyful, jolly manifestation of holiday spirit. Wearing a fat suit.

Although Allen was still, at this point in his career, relying on his same gags, the writing on this movie is really kind of clever, once you get past the unintentional Santacide. Charlie misunderstanding “The Night Before Christmas” leads to a cute gag about the “Rose Suchak Ladder Company,” for instance. Eric Lloyd is actually the heart of the movie – he’s the one who propels Tim Allen along when he wants to give up, whose faith never waves, who steadfastly believes in Santa Claus despite all evidence to the contrary. Far too many adults forget his simple lesson that “just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

It also brings in a theme I don’t think ever appeared in a Santa movie before this one – making the core of the story a father/son relationship. This isn’t exactly a movie about “saving Christmas” like so many of them are, but it’s about Scott and Charlie finding one another again and crafting the relationship they almost missed out on. Sure, there are a lot of stories out there about fathers and sons, but not too many of them deal with Santa Claus, which makes for a nice thematic departure in your holiday viewing.

One odd thing in this movie – and not just this one, but it seems to be an idea that’s been permeating for a few decades now – is the idea of Santa Claus not being any one particular man, but rather a legacy passed on from one individual to another. Sometimes the new Santa must be chosen by the old (such as in 1988’s Ernest Saves Christmas), sometimes it’s hereditary (as in the film we’re going to watch tomorrow), and sometimes, like in this movie, it seems entirely at random. But we’ve been seeing it over and over again, and I’m not entirely sure why. If I had to hazard a guess, it may be a sort of unconscious effort on the part of Hollywood to make Santa Claus a bit more “realistic.” After all, the notion that a Turkish priest from the 3rd century has been hanging around handing out presents for the past 1800 years is far less preposterous if you accept the fact that somebody else takes over the job every so often, right?

No, of course that isn’t right. For Heaven’s sake, we’re talking about a mythology full of flying reindeer, time-space dilation, naughty and nice surveillance techniques that would make the NSA drool with envy, and the most efficient postal system in the world… but immortality is the concept that people can’t deal with anymore? Nonsense. The weird thing is, when you apply this same logic (as many fans do) to the James Bond franchise, I absolutely love it – I think it makes perfect sense. But aside from having impeccable fashion sense, Bond and Santa Claus really don’t have that much in common.

Wow, that was a wild tangent, even for me.

Anyway, although the writing of the movie holds up, the special effects don’t, and it’s kind of inexcusable. Just a year earlier, we were treated to CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that were entirely believable. Comparing that to the weak greenscreen effects for the flying reindeer or the jet-powered Elf rescue squad makes it look even more ridiculous. Even Santa Claus: The Movie, released nine years earlier, had more impressive flying scenes. And c’mon – the scene with Scott and Charlie being followed by reindeer at the zoo would have been pathetic by 1970s standards.

Santa’s workshop, at least, is impressive – cleverly designed and brightly colored, although it has an oddly shiny, modern feeling to it. In a unique choice, most of the elves are played by children, and the kids are actually pretty darn good. The elves are immortal (but Santa can’t be? – sorry, not going there again) but appear eternally youthful, and the kids in the cast do a surprisingly good job of acting like old souls in young bodies. Paige Tamada as Judy, in particular, is impressive. She was 11 when this movie was released, but she gives off an air of someone much older and more mature. She winds up lapping Allen, becoming a sort of mentor, even motherly figure to him, which is funny on the face of it, but a darn impressive feat when you consider the demands on the young actress.

Although the sequels to this movie – particularly the third one – dilute the story terribly, this first installment is really quite sweet, quite charming, and worth watching as Christmas rolls around. And from what I’ve seen of the TV schedule, if you turn on your set right now there’s a 97 percent chance that at least one of the movies in this franchise is currently playing on ABC Family.

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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Lunatics and Laughter Day 3: Young Frankenstein (1974)

young-frankensteinDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks

Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Khan, Richard Haydn, Gene Hackman, Anne Beesley

Plot: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” Gene Wilder), grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, leaves his inconsistently affectionate fiancé Elizabeth (Madeline Khan), for Transylvania. He is met by Igor (“I-gor,” Marty Feldman), grandson of his grandfather’s assistant, and Inga (Teri Garr), his temporary lab assistant, who quickly displays more affection than the fiancé he left behind. Frankenstein’s castle is kept by Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), who Frederick questions about his grandfather’s “private” library. That night, Frederick is awakened from a nightmare by Inga, and, after a classic spinning bookcase gag, the two of them locate a secret passageway. At the bottom of a cobweb-covered staircase, they find Igor and the elder Frankenstein’s lab. Frederick reads his grandfather’s notes and finds the secret of animating lifeless matter, something he always believed impossible.

Igor and Frederick steal the corpse of an enormous, freshly-executed man to repeat Victor’s experiment. Igor goes on his own to steal a suitable brain for the beast, but as happened to his grandfather, fumbles with it and is forced to take an abnormal brain instead. In town, the people fear Frankenstein’s grandson, certain he is repeating his grandfather’s crimes (which, of course, he is). They recruit Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) to discover what Frederick is doing.

That night the Monster (Peter Boyle) comes to life. Although he seems gentle at first, when Igor strikes a match, he goes berserk and nearly kills Frederick. Igor confesses that he took a brain from “Abby Normal” just as Kemp arrives.  Frederick sends him off, but while he’s preoccupied Frau Blucher finds the monster and releases it. The creature breaks free from the castle, and Frederick vows to find it before it can hurt anyone. They set a trap for it the next evening, luring it with a violin and sedating it. Frederick insists upon trying to convince the creature it is loved. As he speaks to the beast, he not only takes it under his wing, but accepts his own destiny, declaring, “MY NAME IS FRANKENSTEIN!”

He presents the creature to the town, charming them with a song and dance routine before a light blows and it turns on the crowd and the police haul it away. As Frederick and Inga find comfort in each other’s arms, they receive a telegram that Elizabeth will be coming to the castle that night. After Elizabeth again rebuffs Frederick’s advances for the night, the creature – having escaped — returns to the castle. She passes out and he takes her with him to a hiding place in the woods, where she soon succumbs to its own animal desires. After a mere six times, though, the violin from the castle summons him back. Frederick decides the only way to protect the creature is to use his own brain to stabilize it. Kemp leads an angry mob, complete with torches and pitchforks, into the castle, and are about to make off with Frederick’s body, when the stable creature commands them to put him down. He gives a stirring speech and Kemp realizes the error of his ways. In the end, Frederick and Inga are married, whilst Elizabeth and the creature go off to enjoy domestic bliss of their own.

Thoughts: Coming off the magnificent western/comedy Blazing Saddles, it’s not surprising that Mel Brooks would turn his attention to the horror/comedy genre. (He’d later tackle the epic in History of the World Part I, science fiction in Spaceballs and high adventure with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’d return to horror with Dracula: Dead and Loving it, but the less said about that one, the better.) Working off an idea by Gene Wilder, these two took one of the most enduring classics of horror and turned it into one of the best horror/comedies ever.

Young Frankenstein works as a kinda-sequel to the original Frankenstein, building on the mythology of the original Universal films even though there was no official connection. (Young Frankenstein was produced by 20th Century Fox.) It doesn’t really contradict any of the older films, at least no more than some of the official sequels did, but it takes the franchise into an entirely different direction. This is the first film in my little experiment that I’d classify as a “Type B” horror/comedy – more comedy, but using the tropes of horror and spoofing them. The difference is in the plot, really – what puts this in the second category is that the story couldn’t exist without the comedy tropes. Even Abbott and Costello’s antics with the monsters followed a fairly straightforward scary movie plot for the 1940s, whereas certain elements of this film could not be removed or altered without drastic changes being made to the story structure. You could maybe replace the musical number towards the end with something more King Kong-eque, but that would simply feel derivative. And it’d be a lot harder to play up the creature’s abduction and romancing of Elizabeth without the comedy elements in any way that doesn’t make it tread uncomfortably close to plain rape.

The other thing, and the more all-encompassing thing, that makes this a Type B is the characterization. In a Type A universe, we’ve got a frightening situation populated by some funny characters. Bela Lugosi wasn’t a quippy Dracula, and Bob Hope’s cracks about the ghosts were only funny in the context of a world where nobody would take such a thing seriously. Not so for Type B, where all characters – and everything else – can become fodder for humor.  In Young Frankenstein, as in most Mel Brooks comedies, anybody can play straight man to anybody else at any moment. Everyone can crack a joke or make a comment that’s hysterical – to the audience. In-universe, however, nobody recognizes the humor.

The only exception would be Marty Feldman’s Igor, who leans heavily on the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and throwing out some meta-puns that make him seem both wackier than and more savvy than the rest of the characters. His comedy is easily the broadest of the troupe Brooks and Wilder assembled, and he’s probably the funniest as well. His timing is flawless, his sense of propriety non-existent, and his ability to key into other comedy from other eras makes his performance as funny now as 40 years ago.

What elevates this above most other Type B horror/comedies (coughScaryMoviecough) is the way Brooks and Wilder are still capable of crafting real characters instead of caricatures, telling a real story instead of just creating their own Frankenstein-patchwork of other movies. Even this film, which literally could not exist without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration, feels fresh and original.

Just as important, Brooks and Wilder don’t simply repeat moments, but build upon them. The crummy spoofs of the 21st century are frequently completely devoid of actual jokes, instead just referencing a better movie under the assumption that the audience will understand the reference and laugh at the recognition. This is a stupid, asinine way to make a movie that far too many of my 11th grade students mistake for humor. In a Brooks comedy, though, we touch on the familiar moments and make them new. Igor stealing the brain, for example, begins with a glance at the camera, because he knows that we know what’s coming. Then, when the brain of a “scientist and saint” is accidentally destroyed, he goes for the abnormal brain immediately, despite the fact that the next brain over is clearly labeled “visionary.” The camera just pans past the other label, though, and a viewer may watch the movie two or three times before they even notice it. Modern films are incapable of this sort of subtle, Easter Egg humor – a film by Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer (perpetrators of such crimes against comedy as Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck) would be sure to hover over that label, make sure everybody sees it, and drain every iota of comedic potential from it before moving on to what everybody knows they’re going to do anyway.

Modern spoof movies suck, is the point I’m trying to make.

Anyway, the film is built on small moments. Kenneth Mars’s assorted shtick with his artificial arm, the disastrous game of darts, and the bit where a choking Frederick has to play charades to make his incompetent accomplices understand he wants them to sedate the monster that is actively murdering him are the sorts of thing that make for a great spoof. None of these are repeat jokes, they’re built on the characters and story as presented instead of spending all their time making allusions to everything else. In fact, except for the full-film allusion to the original, the only references to anything else are when the town elders imply they’ve dealt with monsters five times in the past (referring, of course, to the line of Frankenstein pictures made by Universal) and Madeline Kahn’s hairstyle after she becomes the creature’s “bride.” And as those are both clearly references to the Frankenstein lore as a whole, if not the first movie specifically, we accept them.

When the movie references the original directly, it often does so in order to subvert it. When the creature encounters a little girl playing with flowers, we’re prepared for the worst, based on what happened to the little girl in the Boris Karloff original. Instead, we get a hysterical seesaw gag which completely takes us by surprise and is more than funny enough for us to forgive the fact that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story. Gene Hackman’s cameo as the blind man serves a similar purpose – not actually progressing the plot, but showing us the character of the beast as it attempts to make friends and is thwarted, not because he’s a monster, but because his potential companions aren’t entirely capable.

When I asked for help assembling the movies for Lunatics and Laughter, one of the first suggestions I got was Scary Movie. And while I considered it, I decided not to do it, at least for the first phase. It may make the expanded edition, but only because of its influence on movie as a whole, not because of the quality. As you’ll see as we continue our march to Halloween, the vast majority of the movies I’ve chosen for this project are A-Type horror comedies, because most of the B-Types, frankly, are terrible. This is hands-down the best, the finest, the funniest horror spoof I’ve ever seen, and it’s frankly ruined me for most of the other ones. And for that, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder most assuredly have earned my thanks.