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SANTA CLAUS:  THE MOVIE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, David Huddleston, Judy Cornwell, Burgess Meredith
Director:  Jeannot Szwarc
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Commentary Track, Featurette, 4 Trailers, Talent Files
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  October 3, 2000

Film **1/2

We all know Santa Claus, but do we really know his whole story?  I’ve always preferred the version told in the yearly Christmas TV special Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but, thanks to the magic and money of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the jolly old elf gets to have his life story told on the big screen in Santa Claus:  The Movie.  Oh, and in case you didn’t notice the name Salkind on the cover, you can still tell their signature stylings:  the need to state the obvious in the title (“The Movie”), and by the fact that the actor playing the title character doesn’t get top billing (see:  Superman “The Movie” and Supergirl).

The story begins with a simple peasant named Claus (Huddleston) and his wife (Cornwell), who love children but have none of their own.  Every Christmas, Claus makes his rounds in an old sleigh pulled by his two reindeer Donder and Blitzen, and delivers his handmade toys to boys and girls all around his village.  But when a violent blizzard appears to be the end of the Clauses, they awaken instead to a miraculous new world:  a world where elves make wonderful toys year round, and where they’ve been looking for one who would deliver the goods to children around the world every year.  After being granted immortality, a red suit, and six more reindeer, he takes on the name of Santa Claus.

This film strives to create a sense of wonder, while at the same time, answering some of the age old questions.  How do the reindeer fly?  By a special glowing magical powder, not too far removed from pixie dust.  How does he get around the world in a single evening?  Time stands still for him on Christmas Eve.  Why can’t we see his workshop at the North Pole?  Well, not everyone can, naturally.

We also learn over the years how he comes to practice giving toys to the good children of the world and not the naughty ones, and even get to see the origin of the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, whereby Santa balks at the line about his belly.  “Do people really see me like that?” he asks.  “It’s the cookies,” his wife explains.

The film works best when it rests on telling the tale of Santa, and basking in the glory of the marvelous special effects and set designs—that workshop will make you feel like a kid again!  Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to try and inject it with plot late in the game.  How late?  The film’s bad guy, B. Z. (Lithgow), doesn’t even show up until the movies more than half over!

B. Z. is a rich, greedy toy maker and the antithesis of what Christmas stands for.  His toys had recently stood trial before a Senate hearing (my favorite is the teddy bear, which they rip open and cascade of nails comes pouring out!), and now he’s looking for a way to save his hide.  It comes in the form of an enterprising elf, Patch (Moore).  Patch was once Santa’s assistant, but his dedication to speed over detail caused quite a mess back at the North Pole when a sleigh load of toys turned out to be useless.  He quietly left the workshop in search of a way to prove his worth once again.

Hooking up with B. Z. provides him just the outlet he’s looking for.  But while Patch tries to single handedly reproduce the magic of Christmas without Santa or his fellow elves, B. Z. is seizing the opportunity to own the holiday once and for all.  Can anyone save the day?  Santa can!

I’m guessing this film will have a LOT of appeal to kids under nine years old.  For older kids and adults, it’s a pleasant enough experience, but a bit too thin to really hold any interest.  Adults will also see right through the lameness of B. Z. as an antagonist, who lacks the intrigue of a truly good movie villain, and is overplayed horribly by John Lithgow, with an evil laugh stolen from the Beany and Cecil character Dishonest John.  None of the cast is particularly noteworthy, not even the usually funny Dudley Moore or the jovial-but-bland Huddleston in the title role.

But other parts of the film work much better.  The flying sequences really soar and capture the imagination, as does the intricacies of the North Pole set, with its carefully crafted woodwork and cleverly costumed elves.  The handmade toys are a real gem—and by the way, I didn’t notice any Nintendo, Pokemon or Barney products in the mix!  And the musical score by Henry Mancini is a masterwork, containing new compositions and carefully arranged, beautiful, sweeping renditions of old holiday favorites. 

Santa Claus:  The Movie doesn’t merit a lump of coal in its stocking, but it doesn’t quite get the cool train set, either.  I’d say, give it a nice modest ball and bat for at least TRYING to be good.

Video **1/2

This is an anamorphically enhanced and THX certified transfer from Anchor Bay, and for the most part, they did a good job with it.  My major complaint is that throughout, colors seem just slightly muted—probably more the fault of the source material than anything else.  Images are generally very sharp and clean, and the colors don’t bleed, which you’ll REALLY appreciate during the workshop scenes, which offer a lot of detailed information that all renders beautifully.  From time to time, there’s a bit of noticeable grain, but it’s only really bad during one shot:  when Patch leaves the North Pole and the lights go dim around him.  Other dark scenes come across much better.  Overall, I noticed no ringing or shimmering or enhancement effects, and the print used is generally clean and in good shape.  It’s not quite visions of sugar plums, but still a worthy effort from Anchor Bay.

NOTE:  There is also a pan and scan version of this title available.  Avoid it like the plague.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack, however, is truly the sound of a Merry Christmas!  This is a terrific mix that, first and foremost, serves Mancini’s masterful music well.  The orchestration sounds beautiful, and makes use of front and rear channels expertly.  This music will put you more in the mood for the holidays than anything else about the movie!  The rear surrounds also get plenty of good workouts from the many busy workshop scenes.  And hold on to your seat whenever Santa and his sleigh take off:  the sound of hooves rumbling comes barreling out of the .1 channel, making you feel the vibrations in your seat!  Dialogue is clear and presented in a good mix across the front stage, though my only complaint is when dialogue exists without sound effects or music accompanying, it comes across just a tad thin. 

Features ****

For starters, this disc contains a Q&A commentary with director Jeannot Szwarc and Anchor Bay projects consultant Michael Bosco (similar in format to the track on Supergirl), which is well done and a good listen.  Bosco’s familiarity with the movie lets him ask all the questions we would probably ask, and Szwarc is very generous with details.  The commentary usually is focused on exactly what is on screen at the same time, which makes for easy reference.  In addition, the disc contains four trailers, two of which are international ones, talent files, and a 50 minute documentary on the making of the film, which never acknowledges the work of David Huddleston, but rather, opts to go with the illusion that they had the REAL Santa Claus.  Too much time is spent rehashing the plot of the film, but there are some interesting aspects, including training the reindeer (despite the popular legend, real reindeer don’t work together very well, nor do they have much aptitude towards pulling a sleigh), and a bit of Dudley Moore working his magic on the piano.  Plus, music accompanies most of the menu screens, including Sheena Easton singing the lovely “Christmas All Over the World” behind the Features menu.  A nice extras package all around.

Summary:

You may not ho, ho, ho, but you’ll probably give a warm smile or two to Santa Claus:  The Movie.  It won’t make or break your holiday season, but it’ll be a more than pleasant diversion for any little ones in your family, so feel free to enjoy this nicely assembled DVD.  And to all a good night.