Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Santa Claus the Movie: Special Edition (1985)
Studio Line: Artisan

The legend of Santa Claus comes to life in this enchanting heartwarming tale that the whole family will cherish year-round! This is the delightful story of a master toymaker who discovers a magical kingdom of elves at the North Pole. There he is entrusted with wonderous, special powers -- to become the world's beloved patron of Christmas...Santa Claus! And there he meets Patch (Dudley Moore), an eager-to-please elf who becomes mixed up with a dastardly toy tycoon's (John Lithgow) plans to take over Christmas. And so begins Santa's greatest adventure of all -- to rescue his faithful elf and to save Christmas for all the children of the world.

Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Cast: Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, David Huddleston, Burgess Meredith, Judy Cornwell
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround; THX; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 24 chapters; rated PG; 108 min.; $24.98; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Director Jeannot Szwarc and Special Projects Consultant Scott Bosco; 4 Theatrical Trailers; Making-Of; Booklet with Interviews and Photos; THX Optimode.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B+/B

Made by many of the same folks, Santa Claus the Movie tried to do for St. Nick what they did for Superman seven years earlier: retell a popular legend in a clever, exciting manner. It didn't take. While SCTM isn't a bad movie, it lacks the spark, wit and charm that made 1978's Superman such a hit.

A lot of that stems from the fact that old Santa really isn't a very interesting character. After all, it's not like there's any ambiguity about the guy; he's as good as they get, and he can't be shown in any other light. Granted, the film gives him some moments of self-doubt which at least broaden the character slightly, but otherwise, he's just a nice fat guy who hands out toys.

Such a role doesn't exactly lend itself to exciting plots, either, and that's another problem with this film. As with Superman, a significant portion of SC creates the legend; we find out exactly how Santa came to exist and how the whole North Pole operation got going. This portion of the film was mildly interesting but it depended too much of attempted magic and charm, elements that didn't come across well on-screen; obviously, some movies can transmit those concepts nicely, but it takes filmmakers with greater skills than any involved here, and the North Pole scenes come across as somewhat forced frivolity.

Once Santa's clearly established, the story goes off on a tangent. Forward-thinking elf Patch (Dudley Moore) tries to modernize the production of toys but fails. He runs away from the workshop and eventually ends up working with greedy and careless toy manufacturer B.Z. (John Lithgow), who desperately needs some goodwill toward his corporation. Patch hooks up with him so he can make a special product and prove his worth to Santa. Of course, things go wrong since B.Z. is the villain and complications must ensue. Eventually Santa has to enter heroic mode and set things right.

It doesn't work as a film. Two token kids - Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick) and Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim) - enter the story in its second half and they become buddies of Santa. It all seems silly and contrived, and I frankly couldn't have cared less about the threat B.Z. creates for Santa. The entire package moved slowly and went nowhere. Of course we knew that Santa would prevail in the end, so I won't criticize the movie for being predictable; it's not like we ever thought Superman would fail either. However, that tale provided such interesting and tense events along the way and succeeded as storytelling, whereas the plot of SC just sits there like a lump.

Moore seems mildly charming as Patch, though the script saddles him with far too many allegedly-clever lines; basically take any phrase that uses the word "self" but substitute "elf" and you have the majority of the film's jokes. David Huddleston creates a decent Santa, though he lacks much charisma or spark and makes the big man seem fairly pedestrian.

Lithgow is simply terrible as B.Z.; he camps up a storm and creates one of the most annoyingly cartoony characters I've seen in a while. Granted, that was part of the effect they attempted, but there's no fun to be had in his annoying portrayal. I also found the kids to seem limp and without charm, especially androgynous Joe, one of the more wooden and stiff child actors on record. Their roles felt tacked on and superfluous.

Santa Claus isn't a terrible movie, but as with another film by the same team - 1984's Supergirl - the entertainment is sporadic at best, and the picture fails to accomplish its goals. Unlike more subtle efforts such as A Christmas Story, this one screamed its desire to be a "holiday classic" right off the bat and bit off more than it could chew. Frankly, few want to see a Christmas movie that turns Santa into an action hero, and the lack of charm behind this project leaves it high and dry.

The DVD:

Santa Claus the Movie appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture displays some general concerns but it usually looks pretty good.

Sharpness seems clear and crisp for the most part, as most scenes are well-defined. However, definite softness intrudes on some segments of the film; most of these occur when we find wide shots, but the haziness isn't restricted to those parts. Minor moiré effects happened periodically, and I also noticed moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print itself displayed mild amounts of grain throughout the movie; these caused most of the film's problems, as they gave the image an odd flickering quality at times. Otherwise the picture seemed free from defects; I detected no signs of scratches, speckles, grit, hairs or other flaws.

Colors were accurate and cleanly-saturated. The film tends toward a fairly brown palette, but the workshop shows some nice greens, reds and yellows, all of which look concise and clear. Black levels were fairly dark and deep, and shadow detail appeared generally acceptable, though some scenes seemed overly thick. Overall, the movie presented a positive image.

Better is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Santa Claus. The soundfield was surprisingly wide and broad and it remained an active part of the mix throughout the film. The front side speakers offer a lot of music and ambient audio and provide a realistic and involving array of sound, while the rear channels also add a nicely engrossing atmosphere. Audio pans between speakers fairly well, and we even find occasional split surround usage. It doesn't compare with more modern productions, of course, but for a film from 1985 it seems well-executed.

Quality generally appears very good. Dialogue could be a little dull at times, but speech usually sounded crisp and natural, with no problems related to intelligibility. Music could have used a slightly brighter tone, but it worked well and seemed dynamic enough, with nice use of the lower register. Effects were clean and largely realistic and rich; some flatness affected them at times, but they usually sounded accurate and clear. All in all, the soundtrack provided a solid experience.

Santa Claus includes a few supplements, starting with an audio commentary from director Jeannot Szwarc. Szwarc is accompanied by "special projects consultant" Scott Michael Bosco. The two also collaborated on the Supergirl commentary, though that track was more successful than this one. In both cases, Bosco mainly acts as interviewer; he contributes a few remarks about the film but most of the statements come from Szwarc. Special effects dominate the conversation, although we learn a few other tidbits about the film's creation as well. Overall, I thought it was a pretty dry commentary that didn't hold my interest very well.

The other major extra is a 50-minute documentary called "Santa Claus: The Making of the Movie"; this piece was created contemporaneously with the movie itself. We find all sorts of great material here, from some of details of how the animatronic reindeer were created to shots that show how hard it was to coordinate the synchronized efforts of all those elves. The show includes frequent narration and some interview clips, but mostly we see "behind the scenes" material from the set; even when we find movie clips, most of them are shown as basic footage filmed by the documentary crew and few of the scenes are from the final product. The program seems pleasantly raw; although it certainly works hard to promote the film, it does so in an honest and frank manner. We see some "warts and all" moments and the whole show creates a lively impression of the shoot. I found the program to offer an entertaining and informative look at the making of the film.

As first seen on the Fight Club DVD - and also available with Supergirl and other Anchor Bay DVDs - Santa Claus includes the "THX Optimode" program to set up your TV. This provides you with information to correctly configure various audio and video aspects of your home theater. I don't think it fully replaces something like Video Essentials, but then again, "Optimode" comes as a free addition to a DVD, so it's clearly a bargain. If you haven't already used VE or some similar product, you should find "Optimode" very helpful.

Finally, the DVD finishes with four trailers. We get two US ads plus an "international" promo and a German clip; the latter is dubbed, happily (I love my foreign language tracks). The package also provides solid "talent bios" for Moore and Szwarc plus a booklet with brief but decent production notes.

Santa Claus isn't a terrible picture, but make no mistake: it's movie product and it lacks much spirit or life. I found the film to be fitfully entertaining but generally less-than-compelling. The DVD provides good picture, very solid sound, and some interesting extras, including an excellent documentary. Santa Claus may go over better with families than it did with me, but it doesn't seem likely to be a holiday staple in many households.

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