What do we want from a holiday movie beyond a little snow, Santa, and some sort of message of love and togetherness? And is there a reason we like some admittedly dumb and trite Christmas movies and hate others? Or why some movies—Jingle All The Way, for instance—are embraced as pieces of nostalgic ridiculousness while others—in this case, Santa Claus: The Movie—are viewed as complete failures?
Breaking down into what’s essential two hour-long TV episodes, Santa Claus: The Movie details the origin of Santa from regular 14th-century woodcarver to international icon. It also introduces the Vendequm, or elves, including Dudley Moore’s Patch, who plays a large role in the second half of the film. After a thwarted attempt at becoming the tired Santa’s 20th-century assistant (elves and Santa are immortal, obviously), Patch decides to take his talents to the mortals. He mistakenly gloms on to John Lithgow’s evil B.Z., owner of evil B.Z. Toys, where he uses magical reindeer flying dust to produce the Puce Pop, a treat he leaves under the tree for every good girl and boy. B.Z. being comically evil, he uses the unworldly elf to both raise his prestige and profits, hoping to bring about Christmas 2 in March with a batch of supercharged and dusty candy canes produced by the elf. Some New York scamp kids get involved, finding out that Patch is making dangerous candy without knowing better. They relay that message to Santa, who swoops in to save Patch and one of the aforementioned kids, right as their sleigh-turned-wacky-car is about to explode due to those naughty candy canes. Patch seemingly feels no remorse and returns to the North Pole, where he’ll continue to dance, invent, and tend reindeer. Scamps Joe and Cornelia go north as well, summarily convincing Santa and Mrs. Claus to let them stay there until next Christmas, laws and families be damned. And, thus, good cheer is once again known by all as Santa and his most beloved elves live to manufacture and distribute toys once again. What’s wrong with that?
According to both critics and audiences around the movie’s 1985 release, a lot. Santa Claus lost a good bit of money—an estimated $27 million 1985 bucks—and critics like The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “elaborate and tacky,” having “the manner of a listless musical without any production numbers.” But aren’t holiday movies supposed to be tacky and elaborate? And while Roger Ebert was right when he said the movie’s plot was “a little thin,” aren’t most Santa-related movies based on a bunch of dumb assumptions and thin emotion and not much else?
Santa Claus: The Movie was a big event when it came out in 1985. True to Memory Wipe form, I both saw it in the theater as a kid and owned licensed products related to the movie, including two books detailing the movie’s not-too-elaborate plot. McDonalds, Coke, and Pabst Blue Ribbon were prominently featured in the film, and the fast food “restaurant,” in particular, doubled down hard on the movie, putting those aforementioned books into its Santa Claus: The Movie-themed Happy Meals. But all that promotion didn’t translate into theaters, where the movie made only $5.6 million over 970 screens in its opening weekend.
Santa Claus: The Movie isn’t bad by any means. David Huddleston is a charming, albeit bland Santa, and Dudley Moore certainly brought his joking star power to the role of Patch. (He even drew first billing in the States.) The movie’s kids, Joe and Cornelia, aren’t anything special, with their practically matching bowl cuts, but they move the plot along and add a weird element of pre-adolescent semi-romance that some young fans may have been into. Lithgow’s B.Z. is over the top, for sure, but he actually plays his character well, bringing an element of sketchiness and corporate greed that surely rang true around the movie’s mid-’80s release. And Santa’s workshop at the North Pole is colorful, full of geegaws and baubles that fit perfectly into the images kids had either seen previously or worked up in their Christmas cookie-addled minds.
Still, Santa Claus: The Movie hasn’t maintained the sort of cultural cachet that 1983’s A Christmas Story has, and it’s not clear why. It might be that A Christmas Story is funny, a trait that would account for the continued success of movies like Elf and Jingle All The Way as well. Santa Claus tries to be funny, what with Moore’s jokes that replace “self” with “elf”—“elf confidence,” an “elf portrait,” and so on. Modern audiences like to laugh, whether it’s at ourselves or at our holidays. Some completely sincere Christmas movies endure—Miracle On 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life, and so on—but those survive in part because of the place they hold in the hearts of older people.
Christmas movies that came out in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s have to heartily kid to succeed, speak truth to youth, and find a way to remind audiences about the value of Christmas without beating the message in with one of those wooden hammers tiny-handed elves use to put toys together. Networks and studios know that modern audiences generally want to escape the ham-fisted sincerity of the holiday season—hence movies like Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. And while sometimes that sarcastic-but-not-too-negative subversion works, most of the time it doesn’t. Audiences—and in particular holiday audiences—are a fickle bunch. They want a product that speaks to them in a way that feels individual about a holiday that’s remarkably universal. And they want to take the piss out of all that cheesy, jingle-bell-laden festivity a little bit, all the while using whatever TV show or movie as a sort of warm, comfortable blanket of cheer. They want complicated stories, but they don’t want unresolved issues or unlikable elves. They want their belief in Santa—metaphorical or real—to be challenged, but not too much.
That’s why, years after its disastrous release, Santa Claus: The Movie still stands up to generic, pleasing scrutiny, but hasn’t earned its place in the holy holiday pantheon alongside films Love Actually and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It’s not because the movie isn’t full of enough Christmas cheer, but because it takes that cheer a little too seriously.