The Santa Clause begins with an American family in distress. We’ve seen this many times at the movies. A workaholic father has no time for his wife and son. The wife has scuttled off with a wealthy psychiatrist, who is by all accounts a nice man and spends just about every scene by her side. The son loves his father dearly but also likes the new dad (because he is so nice). They get to see each other some weekends, but to any parent, “some weekends” is not nearly enough.
This little family dynamic would have stood on its own and made itself into a movie, albeit one filled with dread and dead ends. I can imagine the workaholic father realising the errors of his ways as the movie moves along, probably through small acts of good will and charity, ultimately returning, tears and all, to the embrace of his family (the psychiatrist, of course, will commit a dastardly deed and suffer the wife’s banishment).
But The Santa Clause has enough charm and Christmas cheer to steer away from such pitfalls. It actually develops into a sweet parable, more about faith, and the rekindling of faith, than about recovering fathers.
The workaholic is Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), who, not by coincidence, works for a large toy-making conglomerate and whose initials, if you squint really hard, spell out Santa Cl… oops! Have I said too much?
His son is Charlie (Eric Lloyd), who is a chirpy lad, not very bright. His emotional and linguistic boundaries are limited to pouting whenever his parents quarrel, and insisting time and time again that his dad really is Santa Claus! He might not be the smartest, but he has relentless faith, the kind that makes you want to visit the Faith Store and walk out without a dime in your pocket. If every other character in this film is as pliable as a brick, Charlie is the sturdy wall opposite them.
On the eve of Christmas, after reading “Twas The Night Before Christmas” to Charlie, Scott hears thumps and thuds on the roof and scurries outside to investigate. Lo and behold, it’s Santa! But who would think it’s Santa? Scott yells out and startles the jolly fellow, who slips and tumbles off into a bed of snow. Now Scott has to take over the job, which involves much of the pleasures of Kris Kringle lore: Commanding the sleigh and the reindeer, slipping down chimneys and placing (dumping) presents under trees, eating all those cookies and drinking all that milk (some soy). We know all this stuff.
Where The Santa Clause gets truly inspired is when it travels to the North Pole and unveils a vast, seemingly endless underground complex, filled with elves who make toys and take offence at dwarf jokes. The art direction runs wild here, ornamenting every nook and cranny with a candy cane, a present, a little gumdrop button. It has a cheerfully diabetic countenance — the movie suggests Santa is round because he eats the cookies and drinks the milk; I think he got round just by looking at the movie.
The elves are commanded by Bernard (David Krumholtz), the CEO of little people. He introduces Scott to the business and pronounces, rather curtly, that Scott has no choice but to accept the beard, belly, and redness. Indeed, before long, Tim Allen has transformed into a dietician’s worst nightmare (watch how his doctor delivers advice as if plucking random words from a tree of illiteracy). The film’s running gag after this point is that Scott’s a loon, Charlie’s a damaged kid, and Scott must be arrested for claiming to be Santa. The Bible could sue for plagiarism. But the two soldier on, as they must.
What I cherished most about this movie is not the effects, which are dated, nor the performances, which are held rigid by the dialogue, but the path it takes. Scott is pampered by his duties into submission and ultimately earns compassion from his son and wife (Wendy Crewson), which I suppose is expected. Does he get them back and kick out the psychiatrist? Oh, I can’t say that much. It’ll ruin the magic.
Best Moment | Watching Tim Allen puff up into a ball. That fat suit does make him look cuddly and adorable, the right mix for any Santa.
Worst Moment | “We’re your worst nightmare. Elves with attitude” I don’t know. Doesn’t quite say nightmare the way it should.