Saturday, December 9, 2023

Holiday Watch: Santa Claus - The Movie (1985)

Watched:  12/8/2023
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  First
Director: Jeannot Szward  

Even as a kid, when I saw the trailer for this movie and it looked a little suspicious to me. I don't know what it says that a kid pretty game for whatever looked at this and was like "nah", but I think that gut instinct was dead on.   I would have been 10 when this hit, so I wasn't really the audience, anyway - just old enough to not want to see "a kiddie movie", but it looked like schlock to me at that age, and I just had no interest.  

Apparently neither did Planet Earth, because the movie made about $23 million against an estimated budget between $30 and 50 million.

Flash forward to 2023, and we put this one on and a whole bunch of things became clear immediately.

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) was produced by the Salkinds, the same shady guys who put together the first three Superman films and Supergirl.  They have their name up there first and foremost, so you know this is an Alexander Salkind joint.  And if you know anything about the Salkinds you know that if you're ethically a little shaky, these are your guys.  

They know how to capture star power, get amazing effects done and make a big, splashy movie.  They also have no concept of what makes a movie actually work, in favor of just hiring big name talent and hoping for the best.  After all, as far as they were concerned, this is what made Superman I and II work.  Not Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz pulling everything together, rewriting the script and making it a coherent movie after drafts from Mario Puzo and the David and Leslie Newman creative dream team.  And they know how to do it while lining their pockets and screwing everyone else.

Well, we have the Newman's back and writing, and boy howdy, is it ever the Newmans.  Unfunny jokes that they go back to over and over (and over), incredibly broad characters and a certain hokey "we're putting on a show" writing style.*  But they came by it honestly - David Newman was partially responsible for Broadway shows like It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman.  Which, if you've ever seen it (and I have) is a meandering mess of a show where they pursued every wrong instinct polite society had about how to deal with genre media.

The Salkinds also brought in director Jeannot Szward, who directed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which makes sense on paper!  He managed to make a classic out of a weird movie about a guy and his factory producing fun stuff for kids.  And they have a score by no less than Henry Mancini and a "hit" single at the end performed by Sheena Easton.**  And, of course, Dudley Moore is our star casting, alongside a blowing up John Lithgow, just off Footloose and a string of hits (I wrongly thought Blow Out was 1984, it's 1981).  Santa is played by The Big Lebowksi's David Huddleston, and Mrs. Claus by Judy Cornwell that only anglophiles will recognize.  Burgess Meredith pops up for no reason.  

So, you can see the thinking.  We have all the elements: can't fail.  Worked for Superman.  

And then they proceed to put forth a clearly wildly expensive, absolutely boring movie that takes a good hour to really get going.  

Basically, we start with Mr. and Mrs. Claus as mere mortals who freeze to death on Christmas Eve, and are resurrected to go live with a cult.  They are treated well, but told "now you will deliver all of these toys we make" which Santa is kind of game for, I guess.  But he has little to no agency - he is literally pressed into service.

The factory, by the way, is an amazing set that makes the Fortress of Solitude look like a hack job.  It's a multi-tiered, all-wood environment with moving parts and covered in toys, elves and colorful detail.  In addition to the expansive environs of the film, the impeccable costuming, all of the effects are fairly top-tier for 1985.  Clearly the Salkinds knew to borrow the flying effects from Superman, perhaps made easier when you can put Santa in a sleigh instead of a harness, but it seems to be a pretty similar set-up.  There are also muppet reindeer that have personality and are part of the story.  And, plenty of optical effects.

Plotwise - it's unclear WHY the elves were already making toys or have this factory.  They say it feels good to give toys away, but they've never done it as far as I can tell.  After all, they have a warehouse full of them.  But they do have reindeer, magical flying powder (more on that later), and an agenda.  So, much as Superman has a lengthy opening sequence, including Krypton and Smallville sequences, as well as the Fortress stuff, this movie thinks Santa needs all that.

He does not.

We're a good hour into this movie before anything like a plot kicks in.  Which is not really how Superman works, but I can see how the mistake was made.  In Superman, you don't see Clark turn into Superman til way, way into the movie, but... plenty occurs with comedy and tragedy and plot tension in that first hour, but not here.  Santa just kind of bumblefucks his way into becoming the Santa we know, including spending *centuries* as the jolly gift-giver before looking at naughty children and  thinking "fuck them kids", taking away their gifts.  With no forewarning, by the way.  

Our plot that eventually surfaces is when Santa (a) promotes his tinkerer pal, Patch (Moore) to be his assistant to help out as the world population explodes.  (b) Patch innovates with an assemblyline, which obviously makes worse toys than by-hand toys.  (c) Those toys suck and break.  (d) People decide the man giving them free toys is a loser after centuries of success.  (e)  John Lithgow plays Dan Aykroyd's character from SNL who sells very dangerous and defective toys.  (f)  Patch goes to work for him after getting demoted and thus leaving the North Pole. (g)  Patch puts cocaine magic flying powder into lollipops and hooks kids on the "first one's free" scheme.  (h) Santa immediately wants to quit.

I haven't mentioned the two kids in the film, the very post 1970-streetsmart homeless kid with a bit of a NY accent and then the cherubic girl who lives in a mansion in Manhattan and feeds the homeless kid (successfully, and daily, because no one is paying attention to what this girl is doing).  

Santa meets "Joe" on Christmas Eve and flies him around, but does nothing else for him.  I mean, Santa seems like he could have done *something* to help out this kid, but he just peaces out and is like "see you next year".  Santa, that kid is going to have moved on or be dead.  Meanwhile, turns out Cornelia's uncle is John Lithgow.  

There are incredibly long scenes between Lithgow and Moore that feel like extended cuts of stuff the Salkinds thought worked between Luthor and Otis, but they forgot how Miss Tessmacher provided daffy balance.  Or didn't know.  But, my god, all of it just drags.

And that's the weird thing.  This movie is a full two hours because Act 1 takes an hour.  But when we get to Act 2, no one puts their foot on the gas.  The pacing is murder.  

For all the sets (which are also weirdly and uniformly dark) and costuming and money thrown at this thing, and what feels like thought put into creating a lore for Santa, no one seems to have a feel for what kind of movie this is.  It's not funny despite featuring Dudley Moore, who often seems kind of sad.  It's not upbeat or quirky.  It kind of just keeps happening with sort of joke-shaped moments occurring.  

And, most bizarre, the movie ends not on a December 24th, but in late March, on the recently deployed "Christmas 2", come up with by Lithgow's character to sell more cocaine lollipops that allow kids to fly and which, it turns out, will explode violently if placed near a heat source.  

The movie ends with Santa saving Dudley Moore and Joe, there's a pointless bit about missing two reindeer, and the last moment of the movie is Lithgow disappearing into space to die after ingesting too many lollipops as he runs from the cops.  


Look, I've watched some real shit bombs this Christmas, and this one is not the worst, but it sure was trying.  And, most offensively, it was so expensive.  It's a testament to the two most essential things in a film really being a script you can work with and that goes somewhere, and an editor who can try to craft something coherent from whatever wobbling pile they're handed.

The casting of Dudley Moore, famous at this point for playing everyone's favorite raging alcoholic, was weird.  He was oriented to movies for grown-ups, and as a ten-year-old, I remember thinking "that's odd casting" even if I couldn't put my finger on why.  And he's not bad, but he just seems kind of depressed through the whole movie, which was a choice, I guess.  And aside from "Joe", the performances are mostly fine.  And Joe is fine.  He's just... doing the bit in the movie that folks decided had to be in movies for kids until Goonies.  

If there's one note about the visuals, it's weird how old this looks and how much like a modern movie Scrooged looks, coming just a few years later.

For decades I'd been told "not worth it", and, by gum, those friends were just trying to help me.

Anyway, here's Sheena Easton's song.  Try to remember that Sheena Easton is very, very good looking before judging her too harshly.

*there's probably a fascinating career retrospective one could do about the Newmans, because they kind of Forrest Gumped their way through Hollywood as near as I can tell.

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