Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: November 27, 1985
Directed by: Jeannot Szwarc
Genre: Adventure / Family / Fantasy
Stars: 3 out of 5
Santa Claus has been a fixture of Christmas movies for decades, but he is often portrayed as a somewhat mysterious character who shows up late in the film to help the protagonists. This type of portrayal is compatible with the way most children think of Santa, and he requires little depth to be a satisfying character. By choosing to feature Santa Claus as a major character and his North Pole factory as a primary setting, 1985’s “Santa Claus” takes on a difficult task.
The first part of the film deals with Santa Claus, portrayed by David Huddleston, in the fourteenth century. He is a woodcutter who lives with his wife Anya and crafts gifts for the children who live nearby. A blizzard strikes, and Santa, along with Anya and his two reindeer, is transported to a mountain where he finds elves who are expecting him. He is informed that he is destined to deliver toys to children around the world and will be assisted by the elves, Anya, and his reindeer.
This introduction presents an image of Santa Claus few subscribe to. In most tellings, Santa Claus is presented as a Saint or other powerful figure. Here, he is presented as a simple man following his destiny. Until he is swept away, he is shown as possessing little beyond his carpentry skills and generous heart. This introduction presents Santa Claus as a truly human character, not the larger-than-life figure most think of. By giving Santa a backstory, the film gives him more depth than most movies.
That depth makes it understandable when Santa is shown to be growing tired of his constant work. Now in the late twentieth century, his workload has grown considerably thanks to a worldwide population boom, and the simple woodcutter is now dealing with a workshop that, despite being staffed by elves, now closely resembles a modern factory. Two elves, Patch and Puffy, audition for the role of assistant, and Patch wins by demonstrating a machine capable of producing toys quickly. Unfortunately, the toys are of poor quality, but the speed at which they can be produced is enough to impress Santa Claus. Once his toys begin to fall apart after being delivered, however, Patch goes into a self-imposed exile.
Patch then meets B.Z., portrayed by the always-enthusiastic John Lithgow, who is an executive at a toy company. When Patch sees B.Z.’s toys being removed from a store, he offers to use his North Pole experience to help. Unfortunately, the toys were removed for being unsafe, and Patch has a proclivity to gloss over details related to safety and quality. B.Z. exploits Patch’s skills in an effort to become the de facto face of Christmas, and his dangerous items, including his potentially explosive lollipops, are in the process of being delivered when Santa and his reindeer save the day in dramatic fashion.
Patch represents a departure from most films, especially those released in the 1980s. Ultimately, he is one of the films antagonists, and his actions represent a threat to Santa and a danger to children. While he is certainly misguided and naïve, he is also shown to be jealous and willing to betray his former boss. This depth makes him the film’s most interesting character, and his portrayal adds a bit of maturity to an otherwise simple film.
The film also deals with themes adults can appreciate. Films in the 1980s often feature corporations as the enemies, and “Santa Claus” is no exception. The idea that anyone could threaten Santa Claus’s monopoly on Christmas would normally seem absurd, but the movie presents a plausible scenario, at least if you accept the existence of elves and their magic abilities. The film also touches on issues of wealth and poverty.
“Santa Claus” presents a Santa Claus mythology that few would envision, and its twentieth-century scenes bring a classic character into the modern world. Instead of relying on simple portrayals of good guys and bad guys, the film leaves room for some nuance. Presenting Santa Claus as a man thrust into a destiny he never sought gives him a human side most portrayals of him lack, and the sympathetic Patch present viewers with a surprisingly complex character. The story also presents a public that seems to have lost faith in the magic and wonder of Santa Claus. When a corporation is positioned to replace Santa Claus, the public quickly seems to forget about him. Destiny being what it is, however, Santa Claus is ultimately victorious, and he is quick to take action to resume his role as Christmas’s official toymaker and delivery man, which leads to a satisfying ending for children and adults alike.