Twenty years after its initial release, I’ve finally figured out what bugs me about The Santa Clause.
For the uninitiated (I don’t know who this could possibly be; four-year-olds, maybe), The Santa Clause is a movie in which the great hardware-obsessed comedian Tim Allen puts on a magical Santa suit that turns him into the real, no-shit Santa Claus. Obviously, there are several thousand problems with this premise, not the least of which being the fact that Santa Claus is (probably) not real. But that stuff doesn’t bother me; the movie is a fantasy, and when the sad-eyed actor playing Allen’s son (Eric Lloyd) begins to invest his whole universe in the belief that his father is the true Annual Gift Man, his idiot-brained faith is contagious. Yes, Charlie, there is a Santa Claus. And he’s a grunting imbecile who wants more power.
The movie’s high concept actually has a good deal of genius to it: A fine-print clause (ha) on a business card found on the Santa suit binds anyone who dons the iconic garb to carry out the necessary duties implied therein. As explained by Bernard (retrospective sex symbol David Krumholtz), the “head elf” at the North Pole: “You put on the suit, you’re the Big Guy.” It’s a great spin on the way we normal humans agree to all sorts of shit we don’t understand. Allen’s character—a divorced bureaucrat named Scott Calvin—is a victim of the sort of behavior we now engage in almost daily: He clicks OK without reading the terms and conditions.
However, Scott is merely a victim of circumstance. It’s Christmas Eve, and a man dressed as Santa Claus has fallen off Scott’s roof and appears dead. (The title of Santa Claus operates like the Scottish monarchy in Macbeth, I guess.) Like any reasonable person, Scott assumes the man is a wandering eccentric and treats the situation with logical curiosity. But his son, Charlie, is just young enough to still believe in Santa Claus, and seeing the dead man and his reindeer-guided sleigh confirms his belief. Somehow, the procedure makes total sense to Charlie; where a real child might be scarred for life at finding Santa Claus dead on his lawn, Charlie takes the pragmatic approach and essentially commands his father to put on the suit and steer the sleigh. We buy into the assumption that Charlie’s prodding is even more irritating than standing outside in the snow wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts, so it’s not at all weird when Scott reluctantly suits up and starts delivering toys to all the good gentile girls and boys. Scott’s a partial-custody divorcee, after all; his willingness to put up with Charlie’s childish bullshit almost reads like penance for being a lousy, workaholic father.
By taking on this task, Scott opens a metaphysical Pandora’s box than can never be shut. Once the Christmas toy delivery is finished, the reindeer reflexively steer the sleigh back to the North Pole. Here Scott and Charlie find a mystical, Christmas-themed wonderland populated by immortal and perennially youthful elves. Both are stupefied, but Charlie takes it as a matter of course. He knew the workshop existed, even if he’d never been there before. Scott assumes he’s dreaming, and remains in a sort of half-assed denial even after he wakes up the following morning wearing monogrammed pajamas gifted to him at the North Pole by a helpful elf.
When Charlie’s mother Laura (aka Scott’s ex-wife, played by Wendy Crewson) and psychologist stepfather Neil (Judge Reinhold) arrive to pick Charlie up on Christmas morning, they are disappointed when the boy starts blabbing on about the previous night’s adventure. Naturally, they assume it’s part of some fantasy game encouraged by Scott. They had hoped this would be the year when Charlie would finally forsake his ridiculous belief in Santa Claus. (Charlie’s age is unclear, though the actor Eric Lloyd was eight when the film was released.) Obviously that’s no longer an option, since Charlie’s seemingly childish beliefs have now snuck into his reality. Young children—much like protagonists in screwball comedies—are among the most myopic of creatures, so we know that Charlie isn’t going to back down from his story. And as whiny and cloying as Charlie is, we as audience members know that he’s right; the only truth we know is what the movie gives us, and in this context we cannot deny that Scott Calvin is the real Santa Claus.
This is where the problem lies. It’s not a logistical problem (the movie has plenty of those, but we accept most of them as necessary to its fictional universe) but a philosophical one. The problem is that the movie’s narrative framework requires Laura and Neil to play the villains, even though they only react as any reasonable people would to their situation.
In this way, The Santa Clause shares a shred of its DNA with most movies involving ghosts or clandestine, multinational conspiracies. (It’s not even the first Christmas movie to use this tactic; the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street famously features a man who goes to court in order to prove he’s the real Santa Claus–though I would argue that The Santa Clause is the more popular film in current syndication, and is thus more worthwhile to discuss.) In the young Charlie, we have a character who relays an experience that, within the movie’s internal reality, is at once (a) inarguably true, and (b) impossible in the eyes of anyone who uses common sense and accepts the basic laws of physics. Since this demographic typically includes all non-insane people over the age of ten, Charlie’s testimony is chalked up to a hyperactive imagination. Scott, meanwhile, slowly begins to accept that he is the one true Santa Claus, and this makes him appear deranged and delusional.
But again, these perceptions only belong to human characters who are not Charlie and Scott. And since we experience the movie through Charlie and Scott’s eyes, we’re always on their side. We know there’s a Santa Claus, a workshop at the North Pole, etc. This means that we’re forced to side against Laura and Neil—two functioning, reasonable humans whose only sin is hanging out on the wrong side of an absurd narrative.
Certainly, Laura and Neil aren’t the only characters in film history whose refusal to believe the unbelievable results in embarrassment. The list of “this thing is happening but no one believes me” movies must be a thousand pages long. But The Santa Clause is unique in that it portrays the refusal to believe as a character flaw. Most of the time, a lack of belief in the mythical or the supernatural is understood to be reasonable, even if the character is eventually proven wrong. Look at The Exorcist (1973) for example: even the priest, Father Damien, has a hard time believing that little Linda Blair has been possessed by demonic forces. He’s wrong, but he’s not a jerk; he takes his assignment seriously despite his skepticism, and once he realizes the true nature of the situation he amends his approach. Laura and Neil, on the other hand, aren’t given this opportunity. They’re perceived as jerks only because of the fact that they refuse to buy a story that is patently ridiculous. (This is similar to the situation faced by the Timothy Busfield character in Field of Dreams, though we eventually find that his character is a jerk by nature, not just by circumstance.)
That the issue of faith forms a gulf between the characters is not in itself remarkable. One of my favorite movies is Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), in which Martin Landau considers having his mistress murdered in order to stop her from exposing the infidelity to his wife. He confides in a rabbi played by Sam Waterston, whose advice—confess the sin and seek forgiveness—haunts Landau as he struggles with his dilemma. Landau ultimately decides to go through with the arranged murder, uttering one of the most morally fucked up one-liners in the Woody Allen canon: “God is a luxury I can’t afford.” Landau is a villain, but not due to a lack of faith. It’s merely that his pragmatism and self-preservation supersede any faith he might have had. There is evil at the root of his character, and that evil manifests itself as an abandonment of faith.
In The Santa Clause, it’s the other way around: the lack of faith on the part of Laura and Neil results in evil. Near the end of the film, as Scott inhabits the persona of Santa Claus in earnest, Laura takes him to court and gains full custody of Charlie, effectively cutting Scott out of his son’s life. Since Scott is the movie’s good guy (the ultimate good guy, really, since he’s fucking Santa Claus) the net result of this scene, from the audience’s standpoint, is to make Laura look like an unreasonable asshole. But really, she’s just doing what any real divorced mother would do if her child’s father began exhibiting signs of a delusional personality disorder. She’s concerned about the safety of her son, so she does the only thing that makes sense.
(One could even argue that Laura isn’t concerned enough: When Scott/Santa violates the custody order and takes Charlie on his sleigh on Christmas Eve, Laura reacts to the disappearance and apparent kidnapping of her son with mild confusion, where in any other movie there would be tears and screaming and histrionics to boot.)
Did Laura have other options? The only one I can think of would be to take Scott’s story at face value, but that would make her seem just as crazy as he does. And maybe that’s the root of the Santa Clause problem: it tells a story in which two separate universes, operating parallel to each other, try to communicate. There can be no outcome but confusion, and our natural reaction to confusion is to impose the laws of our native universe onto the foreign Other. Naturally, each universe has its own unique internal logic, so our laws will always seem oppressive when applied to the Other. Laura and Neil aren’t villains in the real world, but once the movie splinters off into two separate universes we’re immediately placed in allegiance with the Other. The magic and the optimism and the dependence on sugary snacks are too intoxicating to resist. The real world suddenly seems restrictive and fascistic—which is fine, but only if you’re playing a character who understands and accepts the existence of the Other. Laura and Neil have no way of doing this other than to believe the tales of a prepubescent kid and a deranged Tim Allen. Such a belief would be unreasonable and, in the context of the real world, indefensible. Yet Laura and Neil are penalized for their common sense until the final moments of the film when they see the reindeer and the sleigh, at which point their evil is morphed into humiliation. They’re no longer evil, just foolish. Foolish for refusing to believe in Santa Claus. Foolish for being adults.
Am I imposing too much surgical analysis onto what is essentially a kids’ movie? Probably. But consider this: When The Santa Clause was released, I was the same age as Charlie. I’ve grown up to become part of a generation that is regularly derided in the media for being lazy, idealistic, and unrealistic about what grown-up careers have to offer (economic circumstances notwithstanding). I grew up with people like Laura and Neil—good parents trying to raise their kid to be something other than stupid—as villains. This doesn’t mean that parents should always be portrayed as allies. That would be dishonest and boring. But there has to be some middle ground between parents who crush dreams for sport and parents who are Santa Claus.