There have been many on-screen portrayals of Santa Claus. Ed Asner, Tim Allen, Dudley Moore, and one weird time, Paul Giamatti have all played the jolly guy in the red suit. Few have ever suited the role in the same way Richard Attenborough did in this film.
Full disclosure: this is the only version of the film I have watched. I know that the original is also very highly thought of, but I can’t comment, this is the only one I have seen, and the one I grew up with, as it’s a favourite of my fathers too (and his mother was a big fan also, of this one and the original) from what I can gather, there are no great differences fundamentally.
It’s Christmas in New York City, and after an incident with her department store Santa special events director Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) is on the search for a replacement. Just by luck, she happens upon a strange old man calling himself Kris Kringle (Attenborough) who steps in to fill the job. He soon becomes one of the cities most popular Santa’s and even manages to touch the heart of her non-believer daughter Susan (Mara Wilson) but things suddenly turn sour when Kris is dragged before a court to prove he is the real Santa and to save Christmas.
This film represents the last leading role Attenborough would play in his storied career both in front and behind the camera, and what a way to go out it is.
Backed up by a well-known story and a talented supporting cast, the screen veteran flourishes in the part and adds a real twinkle to the character. few portrayals of the character have ever been so effective that you wished they were real, but this one does.
Again, I shouldn’t harp on the same point as before but I feel there has been a recurring theme of assessing ‘Christmas magic’ this month, and this is a film that more or less deals with exactly that. The core of the film is Kris Kringle trying to restore the magic of Christmas for a whole town, but also one particular family.
This is the point where it all could have fallen to pieces if the child actor they cast hadn’t been up to it, there is, after all, a long line of former child actors who were just the wrong side of annoying. Luckily for this film though, they decided to make it at just the right time to catch a prime example of a modern child actor.
Although she’s better known for her role as Matilda in the titular Roald Dahl adaptation, Mara Wilson shines here as a somewhat lonely kid who doesn’t believe in the magic of Christmas until she meets Kris. She has surprising maturity on-screen, not just in her performance but in her character, as rather than a typical child character stereotype, Susan is a bright kid with wisdom beyond her years. There’s even a lovely scene where she explains that she goes along with the Santa illusion as to not spoil it for the other children, not something your average six-year-old would do.
You’ll also be surprised upon re-watching just how slyly political this film is, taking aim at the capitalistic nature of Christmas, and even religion, in a somewhat ballsy move for a Christmas film. This tends to get overlooked in the general feel-good nature of the film though, as that’s not really what most people are looking for from a Christmas film. They don’t want to be challenged so this is just brushed aside, a tad unfairly, as it makes a strong case (legal puns, I got ’em).
For all the lovers of that warm and fuzzy feeling Christmas films bring, you won’t be disappointed by this film, its ending is lovely in tying up final bows and paying off plot threads from the first act. In that way it’s a very well put-together film that doesn’t leave any dangling plot threads, just leaves you with warm feelings on a chilly winters night.
I must reiterate once more just how inspired a casting Richard Attenborough was, his lovable nature seems to radiate through the character, it puts a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. You get the impression that he enjoyed making this movie, and he is a joy to watch because of it.
I won’t lie, it isn’t a perfect film. The conclusion to the trial is a touch contrived, and some of the characters aren’t as well-rounded as they should be. Susan’s mother, for example, can seem somewhat neglectful of her daughter, never really engaging fully with her, it would have been nice to explore her struggles a bit more, but I understand that time is of the essence in a film like this, you don’t want to be pitching War and Peace at people who are on their fifth glass of sherry.
Sadly, this is an adaptation that doesn’t get as much love as I think it is due, probably because of the status of the film it had to follow. No matter how good it is, it was always going to be compared to the original, the curse of the remake, but having never seen the original, I can only judge this film on its own merits, and I judge it as being a wonderful telling of a lovely story, with one of the best big-screen Santa’s we’ve ever seen, and a talented supporting cast. Maybe this film needs a bit more love this year.