Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Santa Claus: The Movie
Christmas is definitely a good time to talk about Alexander and Ilya Salkind. The father-and-son team were a big deal around Cannes in the 1970s. In some ways, they were precursors to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. But in other ways, they were a cut above as they cared about quality to a certain extent. The elderSalkind was infamous for producing a Three Musketeers film that generated so much material, he was able to create a sequel, The Four Musketeers, for free. Of course, the cast and crew were none to pleased and took him to court for their fair share of the second film. Soon after, Ilya began working on a Superman movie that will generate two sequels that we’ll talk about in 2018. And after one last attempt at superheros with Supergirl, the Salkinds tried to recreate the Superman magic with the modern Santa Claus. The resulting film, Santa Claus: The Movie, almost works.
The plot is divided into two sections. The first tells a new origin story for Santa, in which good old Uncle Claus (David Huddleston) and his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell) freeze to death on the road between European villages on Christmas Eve circa 1400 C.E. But soon after, they awake at the North Pole where the couple are greeted by elves who claim they have been waiting for Claus to arrive and become their, um, deliverer. Burgess Meredith appears for a moment to mention Claus is the totality of some sort of prophecy. A elf Maud’Dib if you will. His real mission, of course, is to deliver the toys the elves make to the children of the world.
Claus and Anya integrate into elf society– signified by their drab clothing being replaced by colorful attire — and over the course of three montages, the basic notions of Santa’s legend are detailed; from flying reindeer to Santa’s naughty list. But once the 20th Century roles around, the real plot gets going. Eager elf Patch (Dudley Moore) wants to become Santa’s assistant and introduces modern assembly line technology to the manufacture of “Elfmade” toys. He forgets to introduce quality control and soon Santa experiences the first returns of his career. Shamed, Patch leaves the North Pole and comes under the influence of a crooked New York toy mogul named B.Z. (John Lithgow). Once in business with B.Z., Patch’s new toy threatens to finish Santa Claus for good.
Now, if the plot sounds like inoffensive hooey, that’s part of the charm. Unlike some other Salkind productions, there is a genuine sense of innocence and wonder to the proceedings. This is particularly true in the origin story portion as writers David and Leslie Newman incorporate a number of the features that would not coalesce into the modern Santa after Coca-Cola put him on advertisements in the 1920s. These sequence are also backed by a sold sense of production design — the elf workshop is a marvelous set — and choreography as the elves work in a special cadence. And by utilizing a number of the same effects wizards who made Christopher Reeve fly in 1979’s Superman, Santa’s sleigh effortless crosses the sky; though there are a few shots that fail to recreate that magic.
In the 20th Century section, the attempt to maintain a fairy tale tone almost breaks the film. Lithgow’s B.Z. is a caricature of evil businessmen children will immediately grasp, but adults will quickly find irritating. But considering how big Lithgow goes with the performance, you may find him delightful. Dudley Moore’s elf character is a little more saccharine and unpleasant as he makes a few key mistakes for the sake of narrative convenience. There are also a handful of scenes in which Moore is clearly drunk; which is always fun to spot. Christian Fitzpatrick and Carrie Kei Heim play Joe and Cornelia, two children who find themselves drawn into the struggle between B.Z. and Santa. Joe is a street urchin Santa spots during one of his yearly flights. Apparently, Santa never noticed the abject poverty in America’s inner cities until the Regan years. Cornelia, meanwhile is the step-niece of B.Z.; a hilariously cruel and Dickensian notion that reinforces the slightly cartoonish feel of the film.
Which is ultimately why it slides into cheese. Director Jeannot Szwarc’s (of Jaws II and Supergirl fame) attempt to maintain the fantasy feel of the origin section falters when confronted by performers like Moore and Lithgow or ideas like Senate subcommittees on toy safety and product recalls. It is possible these are defects in the script as Szwarc is more of an accomplished TV director than someone who needed to put his stamp on every film. With that in mind, it is easy to see a cynical edge working its way into the Newmans’ story as Santa faces the possibility that Christmas is just too — gasp — commercial. Not that anyone ever says this aloud, mind, but the implication is clear when Patch’s replacement as assistant attempts to pitch a urinating doll to Santa.
But if one thing really ties the movie together, it’s Huddleston’s Santa. Perhaps better known as the Big Lebowski at this point, his gentle performance here may surprise viewers who know him better from that flick. His Santa has a warm, care-free innocence that smooths over some of the problems in the script and direction. You want Santa to be like this guy. The same goes for Cornwell as Anya. She doesn’t have much to do in the film — in fact, her contributions are pretty much limited to suggesting the naughty list and putting Santa on a diet — but she’s still one of the best Mrs. Claus characters ever put on screen by offering a warm openness to the underdeveloped character.
And if you can forgive the film for its faltering fairy tale tone, it is one of the easier Christmas movies to watch with children around. Some of the craftsmanship on hand will also impress you. Hell, Lithgow’s ridiculous performance might make you chuckle. And, really, what more do you need from a family film than Lithgow shouting “Christmas II!” at an befuddled Dudley Moore?
Santa Claus: The Movie is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It is also available as a movie-only Blu-ray release and an earlier DVD release with a commentary track and an archival making-of documentary.