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Looking Back: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Alexander and Ilya Salkind knew how to shape epic movies with a twinkle in their eye, a grin on their face and a seriousness that gave it a genuine integrity. At least, they did at first, when they oversaw the making of the still magnificent “Superman: The Movie” and its superb sequel, “Superman II.” What followed was “Superman III,” “Supergirl” and “Santa Claus- The Movie,” three reasons why blue screen sound stages with potential “flying” scenes were likely tied up from 1982-85.

Like the late, great Dino De Laurentis, the Salkinds tended to lean towards the bigger-is-better approach to filmmaking. This isn’t always a problem, particularly when the films in question portray a superhero from Krypton. In fact, aside from their eventual (and most unfortunate) 1992 Christopher Columbus epic, I enjoyed their output. Yet, the crucially uneven blend of whimsy and heavy handed satire in “Santa Claus The Movie” is a problem the filmmakers and cast work hard to overcome.

I saw this film the day it opened at the Clearview Cinema in New Jersey, following weeks of hype that, as my father noted at the time, came a hair too late. “Santa Claus” (its screen title, with “The Movie” only used for promotional items) opened on November 27th 1985, right as the holiday season was revving up and should have come out a few weeks earlier. Coming out against “Rocky IV,” “Spies Like Us,” “The Jewel of the Nile,” “Out of Africa” and “One Magic Christmas,” “Santa Claus” was done in by flashier competition and bad reviews, though its presence in theaters was impossible to miss. McDonalds sold “Santa Claus: The Movie”-themed Happy Meals and the spin-off books, plush toys and comic books were everywhere (I still have the Marvel Super Special adaptation, stamped with “Elf Made” on the back).

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For roughly an hour, “Santa Claus” works its magic and appears headed towards classic status. David Huddleston (yes, The Big Lebowski himself) stars as Saint Nick, braving snow storms with his wife to give children in woodland homes his handmade Christmas toys. An overwhelming storm leaves him, his wife and his reindeer stranded (and, if the whole film is viewed as a lingering fantasy, possibly dead). When he awakens, he is rescued by elves, who take the Claus’ to their glittering village in the North Pole. Once they arrive, St. Nick is given the job of several lifetimes, overseeing a giant toy factory, directing the elves and, using a device that slows down time, delivering presents to children worldwide.

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Even as a far-fetched fantasy, these early scenes are incredible. The big money shot of the toy factory doors opening and revealing what looks like miles of toys is an awesome sight. So is the odd, beautiful moment the roof opens for the first snow of the season to trickle down. There’s also big, bouncy scenes of the elves making toys that feel like they’re just lyrics away from becoming full-fledged musical numbers. Dudley Moore is top-billed as Patch the Elf and he makes the most of it. He initially seems miscast but his work is sweet and sincere and really, who’s more elfin than Moore? Huddleston is terrific as one of the definitive movie Santas, Judy Cornwell actually has more to do than smile as Mrs. Claus and the big moment where the reindeers fly for the first time is thrilling stuff.

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At the moment the story turns to the 1980’s and we focus in on John Lithgow’s evil toy maker B.Z., the film goes from evoking wonder to settling for camp. I’m a huge fan of Lithgow, one of our most versatile actors. Yet, considering how he had just done “Twilight Zone-The Movie,” “Buckaroo Banzai” and “2010,” his tendency to go over the top seems unstoppable. I liked his performance in “Santa Claus,’ though it seems to belong in a very different movie. So does his introductory scene, where its established B.Z. makes the kind of obviously dangerous, sick toys that once got laughs in a Dan Aykroyd “Saturday Night Live” consumer watch skit. The story also introduces a homeless boy, whose crush on a wealthy young girl leads him to meeting Santa Claus. All of the modern day scenes are at odds with the North Pole scenes. So is a funny but fiendish montage of toys breaking in unison all over the world. It’s as if the out-of-place slapstick of “Superman III” intruded on the carefully established tone. The sequences depicting Patch’s moral downfall, as he unknowingly becomes a corporate sell out, are overdone. So is the big finale of Santa’s “super dooper looper,” B.Z.’s cosmic comeuppance and Sheena Easton’s trying-too-hard ballad that plays over the end credits.

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My affection for “Santa Claus: The Movie” goes beyond fond childhood nostalgia, as it has a grand scale, moments that are truly dear and a massive budget that allowed for the, like it or not, the first and only epic ever created about the origin of Santa. Yet, I can’t deny that the first hour seems like it was written by elves, while the second hour seems like the wicked B.Z. got his hands on the screenplay and turned it into the kind of blatantly commercial the Salkinds seem to think they were above making.

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