Directed by John Pasquin
Written by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick
So many high-concept ideas for big-budget blockbusters come from the deep, dark recesses of screenwriters’ fevered psyches. One wrong twist, and a comedy for the whole family turns into a warped vision of a group of seriously screwed-up individuals wreaking havoc on the world. As a random, non-Disney example, Liar Liar is about a man who is physically unable to lie for a 24-hour period because his son wished it to be so, and somehow, the wish worked. Jim Carrey uses his rubbery physical exterior to sell every joke in this movie, to wring every bit of humor out of it. I haven’t seen it in years, but I imagine that Liar Liar is a relatively entertaining movie with a sugary-sweet core.
But pretend, for a second, that the basic concept of the movie isn’t that a man is unable to lie for 24 hours. Imagine that the concept is that a man thinks he can’t lie for 24 hours, and so acts like a raving lunatic to the world around him. The comedy in the real film escalates, because that’s what good comedy does: it builds. If I remember correctly, Liar Liar climaxes as Jim Carrey’s character literally runs down a plane to save his son from leaving him forever. Now, sure, there are more outrageous climaxes to comedies, good and bad. But the core concept is a guy can’t lie, and it ends here. What if it was just that a man had gone insane, and was acting like a crazy person? What if you were the mother of that man’s son, and you saw him hunting you down on an airport runway? Would you want that man anywhere near your son, ever again?
I bring up Liar Liar to talk about another high-concept family comedy, The Santa Clause. This 1994 Christmas movie has an even simpler idea: Tim Allen turns into Santa Claus. THE Santa Claus. Not a department-store Santa, the real deal up in the North Pole. Though this was Allen’s first big-screen gamble after having been a popular stand-up comedian and starring on the wildly successful ABC comedy Home Improvement, I don’t know how the concept could’ve ever failed at the box office. The Christmas season–even though this movie opened two weeks before Thanksgiving, let alone Christmas–is a great time of year for families to see movies; as rote as it may be, The Santa Clause fits the bill perfectly. Except for one inescapable truth: in the real world, the story of The Santa Clause isn’t heartwarming, but intensely twisted, dark, and frightening.
The basic plot is that Scott Calvin, a toy company executive played by Allen, accidentally sends Santa Claus to his death when he startles the big guy as he delivers toys and goodies to Scott’s whiny son Charlie. After doing so, and being encouraged in a shrill manner by Charlie, Scott sees Santa’s business card. The card just so happens to include a detailed legal clause that says, basically, if a person is reading that card and Santa’s gone, that person becomes Santa. And, voila, Tim Allen is Santa Claus. Over the next 11 months, all the way up to Thanksgiving, Scott not only mentally accepts that he’s the new Santa Claus, but is physically transformed into this idealistic icon. (All this is just an excuse to put a famous person into a fat suit and dyed-white hair, of course.) The main subplot of the film is that Charlie, having been skeptical on the notion of Santa Claus initially, has so embraced the seemingly ridiculous idea that his father is the real Santa Claus, to the point where his mother and stepfather are concerned that Charlie being around Scott is a danger to his mental state.
It’s when this subplot crashes with the main story that The Santa Clause gets into trouble. Right before Thanksgiving, Scott’s ex-wife has decided things have gotten too wrong, too creepy, too disturbing. (I should point out: I’m fairly sure that none of the characters use that kind of language, but that is the vibe we’re meant to pick up.) Her husband, Neil, a psychiatrist who is the comic-relief buffoon despite being thoroughly sensible, suggests that they see if the court will take away Scott’s visitation rights. A court date happens, a judge talks with Charlie in private, and then he tells Scott that, yes, his visitation rights have been revoked. Scott is obviously downtrodden about this news–even though we’ve not really heard him get frustrated or angry about the twist of fate–and so he goes for a lonely walk. On his walk, he just so happens to stumble upon his ex-wife’s house, where he sees her, Neil, and Charlie having a family dinner. Scott decides to ring the bell and say good-bye to Charlie for, potentially, a very long time. (See, Thanksgiving is when Scott needs to go back to the North Pole to be Santa.) Charlie, of course, wants to go with Scott; Scott says it’s not a good idea.
And that’s it, right? Oh, if only. The issue would be closed if it wasn’t for the magical appearance of the head elf at the North Pole, Bernard. Bernard is here to take Santa away–let’s not wonder about the logistics of the situation, because who knows what would’ve happened if Scott hadn’t been in the house, but still walking around–and Charlie decides to pull the old “Ask another authority figure if something is OK to do” gambit. Bernard says it’s fine with him, and then Scott gets a glint in his eye. As he, Charlie, and Bernard prepare for Christmas, Scott’s ex and Neil are worried sick, having called the cops. Where is Charlie? Is he all right? What has Scott done with him? These logical questions are all laughed off even though, by the time the movie has ended, it’s clear that Scott essentially kidnapped his son for AN ENTIRE MONTH.
It’s barely clear, mind you, since director John Pasquin and writers Leo Benevuti and Steve Rudnick do a piss-poor job of actually grounding the audience with a clear understanding of how time passes. Even though a month passes between Scott and Charlie going to the North Pole on Thanksgiving, and Scott doing his Santa duties on Christmas Eve (and sure, maybe it’s just under a month, but you get my point), only 20 minutes go by without any sense that, for Scott’s ex and Neil, the hours have turned into days, which have turned into weeks. From previous viewings, I remembered that the cops were involved but always found it odd that they got involved so quickly. Except it’s not quick, because Charlie is gone for a month. Does Scott let anyone know? No. Does Charlie? Sure, for ten seconds, when he randomly calls his mom to say, roughly, “Hi! Uh…bye!” What’s worst is everyone being OK with Scott doing what he does in the climax, simply because he’s Santa Claus and that makes everything right.
I know. I am thinking too hard about a family movie once again, right? Why put more thought into a movie than its writers? Why not cut it some slack because it’s a family movie, yes? To do so only reaffirms the laziness of the people behind the film. If I am the one pointing out the problem of Scott Calvin, as Santa Claus, has taken his son for 30 days, illegally, it’s on the writers and director for making that problem. Family movies don’t need to be lazy, they don’t need to be dumb, and they don’t get to have any slack given to them simply because they’re, you know, for kids! Pixar movies prove that kids don’t need to be talked down to, as do some great Disney films. On the other hand, of course, kids flock to this kind of movie no matter whether it’s good or not. It’s got Tim Allen as Santa! Isn’t that enough?
It’s not. This movie smacks of being made as a product first, with creativity thrown to the wind along with caution. And hey, I didn’t notice how inherently, profoundly disturbing the third-act twist in an otherwise dull-as-dishwater story was when I was 10. So, no harm, no foul, right? I suppose not, but watching this movie now gives me an unclean feeling; I wonder how the writing process for this schlock came together and if the writers even cared about the message they were imparting to all the kids and families watching. Movies have powerful effects on all of us, and the idea that promoting–even obliquely–the idea that Christmas spirit beats everything, even a COURT ORDER, is absolute drivel.
I have sounded like a Scrooge during my last two blog posts–yes, I know, and the last movie was A Christmas Carol–but that’s only because I do actually cherish the spirit of the season and can’t stand to see it to tarnished and besmirched. That may seem melodramatic to you, but Christmas movies are treasured by families around the world despite there being so few good ones, so few that actually empower and encourage that positive spirit. I know–or, God, I assume and hope–that the people behind The Santa Clause only wanted to embrace the Christmas spirit with their movie. I know that. But all I kept thinking during this movie’s last 30 minutes–because again, I cannot stress enough how unengaging the first hour is–was, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” Not such a merry thought to have.
– Josh Spiegel