My Year Of Flops Case File # 96 Santa Claus: The Movie
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There's nothing lonelier than being a Jew on Christmas. When someone says "Merry Christmas" all I hear is "Fuck you, Jew." When someone says "Happy Holidays" what they really mean is "Fuck you, Jew." When they say "Happy Chanakoonah" that's ultimately just another way of saying "Fuck you, Jew." When someone at work says "Hey, Nathan, can I borrow your Juno screener?" All I hear is "Fuck you, Jew". Man, I really need to go back on my meds. Fucking seasonal depression.
Ah, but Christmas isn't really about religion, you say. It's that most wonderful time of the year when people forget their troubles and join together to worship at the altar of the Great God of Commerce and to a much lesser extent, his little buddy Jesus.
We pay tribute to the Great God of Commerce with maxed-out credit cards. personal checks and plain old cash. But then, in a culture-wide fit of passive-aggression, we turn our backs on the Great God Of Commerce by bombarding children with movies, television shows and songs where materialism is climactically renounced and everyone learns the True Meaning of Christmas. If these renunciations of greed succeed they then make everyone involved lots of lots of money, year in and year out.
The conflict between altruism and self-interest forms the core of today's Yuletide entry in My Year Of Flops, 1985's Santa Claus: The Movie. Watching Santa Claus: The Movie in the theaters as an impressionable nine-year-old was a heartwarming reminder that for every It's A Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas that filled me with desperate yearning for a beloved cultural institution forever outside my grasp there were dozens of craptacular Christmas cash-ins that aspired to do little more than fill their maker's stockings with fistfuls of filthy lucre. Maybe being a Jew on Christmas isn't so bad after all. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9bg8xO7ndg)
Santa Claus: The Movie represented a rather transparent attempt to spin a Superman-like franchise out of the world's most indulgent gift-giver. Actually, Santa Claus and Superman have a lot more in common than films produced by Ilya Salkind and co-written by David Newman. They both can fly. They're both magic. They've both witnessed the sad decline of Kevin Spacey's film career (Santa in Fred Claus, Superman in Superman Returns). And they both fucked Margot Kidder back when that meant something.
Like Superman: The Movie, Santa Claus: The Movie offers an elaborate creation story for one of our culture's most beloved icons. Santa (David Huddleston), you see, was just you average jelly-bellied gift-giving enthusiast until his reindeer nearly died one magical evening. Huddleston, his wife and reindeer are brought back to life by some sort of magical star. Then a group of immortal little people make Huddleston an offer he can't refuse: deliver presents to all the gentile girls and boys on Christmas for the rest of eternity in exchange for immortality and the ability to fly. For a morbidly obese gentleman on the verge of a heart attack that's an irresistible offer. Besides, it's not as if he ultimately has much choice in the matter: he can either deliver toys until the end of time or he can wake up in bloody sheets next to Prancer's disembodied head. Those elves don't fuck around.
The film's surprisingly not-terrible first half cruises through all sorts of landmarks in Santa Claus' evolution. At one point the jolly sonofabitch expresses a suspiciously Socialist belief that "Every child should get a present" (yeah, tell that to Stalin, you fucking Commie) until he learns the error of his ways and implements his patented double-checked list delineating the naughty from the nice.
As long as it's fixated on the goings-on at the North Pole the film is on relatively solid ground. The elves' workshop is so bright and cheery that it's easy to forget it's essentially a sweatshop and the special effects are slick and convincing, especially where flying is concerned. But the moment the outside world comes into play the film's cornball charm starts to disappear.
Santa needs an assistant so he hooks up with enterprising elf Dudley Moore. Alas, Moore's modernization of Santa's factory of joy results in shoddy workmanship, defective toys, widespread sobbing and a furious backlash against Ol' Saint Nick. Children associated with him are terrorized. Bullies taunt poor little rich orfink Carrie Kei Heim by sneering "How can you be so dumb, Cornelia? Everyone knows he gives out shoddy cheap toys. My daddy says he's an old fake." Another pint-sized hooligan twists the knife by braying "My parents gave me a doll that says whole sentences on a cassette. You don't have any parents so "Nyaaaahh!" Nyaaaaahh, indeed.
After the Christmas disaster Moore resigns in disgrace and heads to New York, where he offers his services to sinister defective toy merchant John Lithgow, a cigar chomping arch-villain desperately in need of good PR. I hope someday to be rich enough to smoke giant cigars while cackling maniacally.
Moore and Lithgow set out to beat Santa at his own game by giving out fantastical lollipops that allow suckers to fly. Literally. How can Santa possibly compete? He can't so he sinks into a holly, jolly suicidal depression. Let's just say it's a good thing the elves hid all the knives, ropes and sleeping pills from their morbidly obese boss until his ennui lifted. When an elf diplomatically shows Santa a new doll that wets itself, all Saint Nick can muster is a depressed "But does it fly?"
It may be called Santa Claus: The Movie but in its dreary second half the film ignores Santa for long stretches to focus on the low-wattage antics of a pair of moppets: the aforementioned Carrie Kei Heim, who says things like "Would you like some cookies? They're from Bloomingdale's!" and a Damon Runyunesque scamp (Christian Fitzpatrick) who gazes longingly into the window of a McDonalds at a happy family enjoying the beloved fast food chain's wide array of delicious products. The two form a bond that transcends class lines when Kei Heim leaves a mouth-watering can of Coke and leftovers for her homeless Santa-loving pal. Now might be a good time to point out that there is some seriously subtle product placement at work here.
Lithgow's greed ultimately gets the best of him. When Fitzpatrick discovers Lithgow's evil scheme to sell dangerous, potentially deadly flying candy canes he ends up bound and gagged until Huddleston shows up to save the day. And quite possibly save Christmas. And deliver a death blow to his unwanted competition. It's the free market at work!
As it lurches to a close the film's tone veers wildly between the curdled dark comedy of Lithgow's scenery-chewing, highly theatrical performance and maudlin, sentimental speeches about how ""People don't seem to care about giving a gift just so they can see the light of happiness in a friend's eyes. It just doesn't feel like Christmas anymore" and "If you give extra kisses you get bigger hugs. That's what Santa's wife is always saying."
Then there are elf-themed puns: Moore insists that the magic pops flying powers are "elf-explanatory", that he does not lack "elf assurance" and that ultimately "Heaven helps those who help their elf". Plot ultimately proves the death of Santa Claus: The Movie. Huddleston delivers a sufficiently jolly performance, though it is rumored he was taking twinkle-enhancing drugs throughout the production, but whenever the film strays from Santa's well-worn mythology it flounders and the cynicism at the film's core rises to the surface. As with so many Christmas movies the anti-materialist sermonizing can't help but feel disingenuous since Santa Claus: The Movie is a money-making venture first, second, third, fourth and fifth and a creative endeavor a distinct sixth.
Yet Santa Claus: The Movie ended up angering the Great God of Commerce by losing a mint for Tristar. There would be no sequels, no remakes, no Superman/Santa crossovers where Santa Claus is forced to kneel before Zod. Despite its bloated budget, Santa Claus: The Movie never made it into the pantheon of Christmas classics, though a commenter pointed out that AMC was running it on Christmas Eve. Then again those fuckers were foolish enough to put me on television for thirteen episodes. That should give you some idea just how low their standards are.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure