It’s a wonder it took so long for someone to attempt to make a film about Santa Claus being a kind of super hero. It’s less of a wonder that the people to give it a try would be the same people behind the ailing “Superman” franchise, whose most recent film “Supergirl” had been a box office disappointment. Retaining Jeannot Szwarc to direct again, the Salkinds set out to create a definitive, lavish version of the legend of Santa Claus with decidedly mixed results.
The film starts in 14th century Europe where Claus is a peasant woodcutter delivering toys to neighbouring villages during a blizzard. Determined to make it to all of the villages, Claus and his wife set off being pulled by their reindeer Donner and Blitzen but are caught in the intensifying storm and face certain death. They are rescued however, by the Vendequm (elves) who transport Claus to the North Pole to fulfil his destiny to deliver toys to all the children of the world on Christmas Eve. He is renamed Santa Claus by the senior elf, The Ancient One (Burgess Meredith) and a legend is born.
The movie then flashes forward to the present day and thanks to the population explosion, Santa is feeling overworked and needs to appoint an assistant. An elf named Patch gets the job but inadvertently produces substandard toys which fall apart on Christmas Day. Disheartened, Patch quits his job and the North Pole and heads out into the real world where he ends up working for a callous and avaricious toy magnate, B.Z. When B.Z. tricks Patch into making dangerous toys for every child, it’s up to Santa to save the day, and the world.
“Santa Claus: The Movie” makes a fundamental mistake from the beginning: the film isn’t about the title character, it’s about the guest star’s character, in this case Dudley Moore’s Patch. The early part of the film, setting Santa’s origins is gorgeous. Fantastically designed and directed, David Huddleston gives a winningly twinkly and warm performance as Santa Claus and the set design for the elves workshop is sumptuous and bursting with child-friendly primary colours. However, once the film leaves the magical environs of Santa’s workshop, it crashes down to Earth with a bump, losing its sense of wonder and replacing it with a whole bunch of clichés and a Dudley Moore performance that feels like outtakes of “Arthur”. The film then spends most of its time focussing on Patch and his unwitting efforts to help his new employer, B.Z., become the face of Christmas.
John Lithgow is at his most oily and outrageous here as the capitalist caricature, cigar chomping businessman B.Z. whose focus on profits at the expense of safety create the crisis that Santa needs to resolve. He’s a pantomime villain but is so thinly written that Lithgow has little to work with, and ends up like the evil mirror universe counterpart of Daddy Warbucks from “Annie”.
There’s also a subplot involving an inexplicably Dickensian-style homeless orphan living in 1980s Manhattan called Joe who Santa meets on a rooftop. He allows Joe to accompany him on his rounds that night and then bids him goodbye until next Christmas, inexplicably assuming that Joe will be just fine for the next twelve months despite the fact he is still an orphan with nowhere to live and nothing to eat. During their journey, they meet Cornelia, a rich orphan girl who had previously been kind to Joe and who also happens to be B.Z.’s niece so it all kind of ties together. Sort of.
In the end, it’s a bit of a muddled mess of a film and given Huddlestone’s Santa is one of the best to ever appear on screen, he deserved better than this. When it’s in the North Pole, it’s superb – a winter wonderland of magic but when it’s in the ‘real’ world, it feels tawdry, forced and uncertain as it hobbles to an abruptly dark ending for B.Z. “Santa Claus: The Movie” starts out magnificently but it becomes apparent that it’s promised more than it (or even its title character) can deliver.