Anchor Bay // 1985 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // October 12th, 2000
From the production team of the Superman films and the director of Supergirl came the high budget story of Santa Claus, a cheerful tale that should appeal to kids but falls flat for adults in the second half. Anchor Bay gives the film a new anamorphic transfer and a great collection of extras; again proving they can do more for films that aren't well known or received than other studios do for some major blockbusters.
Klaus (David Huddleston), a medieval toymaker, thrills the Scandinavian village children each year when his reindeer driven sleigh delivers toys at Christmas. He and his wife Anya brave one blizzard too many and are doomed to freeze to death when elves from a magic kingdom appear and take them to their home at the North Pole. There he finds the elves are an industrious lot and have brought him there to be their chosen one; the one who would deliver toys to the entire world and be granted immortality, flight, and control of time to aid him in this quest. After establishing the legend of how Santa Claus came to be the film moves quickly through the centuries, and arrives in modern day where an evil toymaker (John Lithgow) uses the help of a runaway elf (Dudley Moore) to try to take over Christmas. Now Santa must rescue the elf and two kids he has befriended while keeping the spirit of Christmas alive.
This movie was really made for kids, and from their perspective there is a lot to like. I have to admit that the film has a great look as well; with a huge set (done at the Pinewood Studios the Bond films are shot at) for Santa's workshop, great production values, and vibrant colors everywhere.
The best part of the film for me was the first half, up until the modern day story took over. I thought the first scenes with the village children being told the legend of the elves and their magic kingdom, and the snowstorm scenes with Claus and his wife were exceedingly well done, and very believable. I even liked the film after the elves show up and Claus becomes Santa, as he moves through the centuries spreading joy to children everywhere, and the scenes of the elves at work the rest of the year.
Special effects range from very good to fairly obvious, but this was 1985, before the big CGI revolution. Animatronic reindeer stood in for the real thing for some close-ups and other movements, and looked pretty good. They held up as well as they did because you got to see the real ones doing the running and sleigh pulling. I have to compliment the filmmakers for using real reindeer; as this was the hardest part of making the film. Reindeer are not used in teams to pull sleighs in real life because they use a pecking order much like chickens. Usually only one reindeer to a sleigh, but the filmmakers went all out and trained 20 that could work in teams of up to 8 at once. The makers were also at the mercy of the reindeer's antler growth, since they lose their antlers each year and grow new ones over a 3 month period.
Performances are pretty uneven, but I thought that David Huddleston did a good job as Santa, even if I did keep remembering his role in Blazing Saddles throughout (he was the one who didn't want the Irish to move in). Stage actress Judy Cornwell did a fine job as Mrs. Claus, though she didn't always get much to do. This was supposed to be a Dudley Moore vehicle, as he played a large part as the inventive elf who runs away and causes all the modern day trouble. His performance could be described as perfect for small children, but too obvious for adult tastes. Perhaps the biggest star of the film could be Henry Mancini, who wrote the original songs and did the musical score. His sweet, lighthearted score made the film much better than it might have been with a less experienced composer behind it.
This Anchor Bay release is THX approved, which means something to someone. I have to admit the sound is very good. Mancini's score comes through beautifully with this remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital track, and sound effects are placed properly. During the snowstorm scenes you can literally hear the wind blow circles around you. Dialogue is crystal clear as well. For a remix into 5.1, this is extremely good.
Few complaints in the extra department either. First up was a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film. Santa is portrayed as Santa who presumably came from the North Pole to tell his life story, so it's kid safe. While the picture quality is very grainy and soft imaged, especially during any film footage, it is a very good feature on making the film. Take the kids out of the room before turning on the commentary track though, since all secrets are revealed including David Huddleston's role as Claus. The commentary takes the form of an interview with Anchor Bay producer Scott Michael Bosco asking the questions and director Jeannot Szwarc trying to dredge up memories of the film from his prompting. If that sounds less than informative, you'd be right, though Szwarc does come up with some information that wasn't covered in the documentary. Bios and Filmos for Dudley Moore and Szwarc and four trailers; two domestic and two international, are the remainder of the film related extras. In addition there is an Optimode THX set of audio and video tests to help calibrate your set. Not as good as renting Avia or Video Essentials but very nice, making for a solid package, particularly the documentary. One last mention: this disc has English subtitles! Anchor Bay came through with a feature I think should be standard on every disc, but they usually haven't provided.
That left picture quality for this section. Why is it when I see THX on a disc it means good sound but the picture quality means nothing for that seal of approval? Heck they let people use out of focus VHS images and still get that seal. That lack of quality assurance in picture quality has severely downgraded any respectability that label ever had, and isn't worth the money they want for it. That said, the picture quality in Santa Claus isn't that bad. It's much better than the terrible transfer it was given on VHS, which was nearly unwatchable. This is an anamorphic transfer that some care went into, I admit. The biggest problems really come from the source, which shows a lot of film grain. Special effects shots (and there are many) suffer the worst, but there was grain in other standard scenes as well. Some nicks and blemishes are still visible also. Colors are oversaturated, but this was intentional often enough. The picture looks all right, but it doesn't look particularly great. I'm probably being too harsh on Anchor Bay; I'm sure they did everything they could with what they had.
Now for the film. John Lithgow has never been worse in his cartoonish and buffoonish role as the evil toymaker. He made his role as the villain in Cliffhanger look like a nuanced Oscar winner in comparison. The whole modern day story of Dudley Moore making toys with the evil Lithgow took the film off its track and beauty and made it a farce fit only for 8 year olds. Which I suppose was the intent, but the best family films still manage to grab and keep the parents too.
I think this film is a sweet piece of entertainment for small children at Christmastime, and I admit the film has the budget and production values to do this mythical story justice. The disc is worth a rental at least for those with kids. The picture quality isn't everything I'd like, but it's not bad. Everything else about the disc is fine.
The makers of Santa Claus are fined for messing up a perfectly good story with a clumsy third act fit only for small children, but are released. Anchor Bay gets another commendation for treating a film that isn't well known better than other studios treat their mainstream titles.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary Track
* Talent Files
* Optimode THX System Tests