Disney // 1994 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // November 26th, 2002
This Christmas, the snow hits the fan.
Many people look at holiday family films and groan as if they're on their way to a root canal. However, buried deep beneath the public backlash of cynicism and loathing, there is a spark of something meaningful and long forgotten -- the magic of childlike wonderment. Long before final exams, bad blind dates, drunken binges, mortgage payments, credit card bills, and foreign wars played out on prime time television, we were kids -- adventurers, dreamers, creators, and believers. Can you recall what that used to feel like? The Santa Clause is one of those films that helps us remember.
Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is a successful, divorced toy executive whose latest project has earned him the respect and praise of his bosses and co-workers. Unfortunately, he doesn't enjoy the same success at home. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Scott's son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) doesn't even want to spend Christmas Eve with him. His ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) and new husband Neal (Judge Reinhold) haven't been much help, stripping away the magic of the holidays to ground Charlie in the reality of today's world. Scott may be perceived as a screw up when it comes to being a father but he's not alone, as evidenced by the many single fathers and unhappy kids dining at the local Denny's on Christmas Eve. In an attempt to salvage an otherwise disappointing evening, Scott sends Charlie off to sleep by reading "The Night Before Christmas," while answering his many questions about the story's plausibility -- eventually telling Charlie, "Sometimes you just have to believe." However, when you're put into a situation where a red suited, fat guy falls off your roof and ends up dead on your front lawn on Christmas Eve, what do you choose to believe?
Following a successful stand up career in the 1980s with a hit television series (Home Improvement) in the '90s, Tim Allen was ripe for a feature film development deal. However, this was far from a sure thing. After all, many other TV stars had jumped into those same waters and wound up drowning -- Roseanne Barr (She-Devil), David Caruso (Kiss of Death), Luke Perry (Terminal Bliss). Lucky for Tim, the first one out of the blocks hit big. The Santa Clause pulled in $140 million at the box office and began a very profitable relationship between Tim and Disney.
The basic plot of the film isn't all that original -- self-centered workaholic is thrust into a situation that makes him realize what's truly important in life. In addition, Hollywood has amassed a warehouse of holiday films where the main character steps reluctantly into the Santa Claus role -- The Lemon Drop Kid, The Man in the Santa Claus Suit, Ernest Saves Christmas, The Nightmare Before Christmas. So, now you have to ask yourself, why is this one any different? What makes this film work is its genuineness. Accomplished television director John Pasquin (Home Improvement, LA Law, Thirtysomething) takes the best of his experiences from the small screen and rolls them into an understated, character driven film. Avoiding the obvious traps, Pasquin shifts the focus away from the comedic shtick and concentrates on the natural humor found within Calvin's crisis of identity, leveraging the power of Allen's comedic timing.
Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick's (Space Jam) script is tailor-made to Allen's sarcastic, dry delivery. His portrayal of Scott, a man confronted with the most improbable situation, is heartfelt and real. Never do you get the feeling he's a one trick pony reprising his Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor television personae (although there is an in joke reference) nor does he come across as a bigheaded "actor" trying to show the world how talented he is. While Wendy "watch me be emotional" Crewson and Judge "I always play the same character" Reinhold inhabit throwaway roles that could have been played more effectively by other actors, it's the work of Eric Lloyd (Deconstructing Harry) -- son Charlie -- and David Krumholtz (Addams Family Values) -- elf crew chief Bernard -- that power the film's heart. Lloyd comes close to the abyss of annoying child actors populated by that girl from the Pepsi commercials, Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire), and Jake Lloyd (Star Wars: Episode I) -- no relation -- thankfully he never crosses over to the dark side. Krumholtz is a riot, though never given as much screen time as his dark humor deserves. In the end, it's Allen's film to make or break, and he pulls it off surprisingly well.
This so-called "special edition" of the film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. From what I understand, the original 1998 non-anamorphic version was a disappointing transfer, albeit a step above its previous laserdisc release. If true, Disney has done an exceptional job with this one. The color palette is rich and vibrant with rock solid blacks, most impressively displayed when Scott and Charlie arrive at the North Pole. You'll have to look very hard to find any evidence of digital tampering. The 5.1 audio is not as impressive as other recent Disney releases. Granted, it's a dialogue heavy film, but one would expect the sound effects of Santa's sleigh ride and gift delivery sequences to make much better use of the sound spectrum. As for the bonus features, it will be a disappointing Christmas morning for everyone. First up is what appears to be a slapped together promo piece entitled "So you Wanna be an Elf?" This newly filmed seven-minute piece of drek features visibly detached David Krumholtz as Bernard, training a new group of elf recruits. Aside from 90 seconds of behind-the-scenes clips from the film, there is nothing of any value here. Moving right along, we have a cursor driven game for the kiddies, in which they get to maneuver Santa's sleigh through a series of obstacles to successfully deliver gifts. Right. I've seen more entertaining games found on cell phones. Your kids will take one look at this and move onto something else. The final feature is even more absurd -- a 15-minute holiday cooking lesson with chef to the stars, Wolfgang Puck. Aside from the elfin children surrounding Wolfie while he creates pizzas and cookies, there is absolutely no relevance to the film. Throw in a sack full of Disney promos and sneak peeks (including The Santa Clause 2) -- minus the original theatrical trailer (a big oversight) -- as well as a few enticing DVD-ROM extras -- "Write a Letter to Santa," a non-secular "Advent Calendar" screensaver, and the obligatory web links -- and there you have your "special edition."
Ignoring the disc's inane bonus features, the real value of this release is the upgraded version of the film itself. While it may never crack the top ten Christmas classics, The Santa Clause is an engaging and entertaining holiday film. At $29.99, the price is a little steep, but keep your eye out for sales. This gets a must rent recommendation for this holiday season and a good buy nod for those holiday DVD collections.
This court hereby dismisses all charges against The Santa Clause. However, we are putting Disney on notice for potential fraud charges in grossly misrepresenting the phrase "bonus features." This court now stands in recess.
Review content copyright © 2002 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* So you Wanna Be an Elf?
* Santa's Helper -- Interactive Game
* Making Santa Snacks with Wolfgang Puck
* Write a Letter to Santa (DVD-ROM)
* Christmas Calendar Screensaver (DVD-ROM)