Judge Gordon Sullivan went to Santa school, but got tired of dodging reindeer droppings.
You will believe…again.
It's cool to be hip and cynical. There's a certain cachet to being the first kid in your class to recognize that the white bearded guy in front of you during the Christmas holiday is not some mythical denizen of the North Pole, but your Uncle Bob in a cheap costume and fake beard. At that age you get extra points for noticing that this year Uncle Bob doesn't need that pillow under the red jacket anymore. Hundreds of TV shows and movies have contributed to this campaign of cynicism. So many stories are about showing that those who play Santa are not always the best people, even if the story has a magical Christmas ending. That puts Become Santa in a strange place. On the one hand it's all about demystifying the world of those who play Santa, but on the other it's all about the joy that the Bearded One brings to millions of people. It's a feel-good Christmas film that isn't afraid to be factual.
Santas are pretty ubiquitous from Black Friday through to New Year's Eve. They're on TV, on sidewalks, in malls, and on billboards. They're collecting for charity, bringing good cheer, or trying to sell widescreen TVs. They're so much a part of the landscape of Christmas that we rarely stop to think about either where Santa Claus comes from, or who inhabits all those red suits. Enter Jack Sanderson. He decides that he's going to become Santa for a holiday season, and director Jeff Myers is going to follow him. It's not just a matter of borrowing a suit, a beard, and a pillow to stuff it with. No, Jack needs custom duds, training at the American Events Santa School, and eventually goes to a number of events as Santa Claus. Along the way we learn about the culture of Santas and the history of the man himself.
I know that shows like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars are popular, but I've never much gone in for exotic reality subjects. One of the reasons that a film like Super Size Me was so effective is because it took on a target that we see every day and told us something new about it. Whether you like the film or not, Super Size Me made it difficult to look at the ubiquitous fast food chains in the same way again. Basically, Becoming Santa does the same thing for St. Nick.
No, we aren't exposed to the dark underbelly of seedy bum-for-hire Santas. What I mean instead is that after Becoming Santa, it will be impossible to walk around in the month of December without noticing (and to a lesser extent evaluating) all the Santas on display. We've all seen them, and yet I'm guessing most of you (like me) thought it was just a matter of putting on a suit, shouting "Ho, ho, ho," and listening to kids. After Becoming Santa, I now realize just how much work can go into the act. Sure it requires the suit (which should be custom made for the best fit), and the "Ho"s, and the listening, but it also requires dealing with questions about Santa, the magic of Christmas, and why certain toys can't or won't appear under a child's Christmas tree.
The most amazing thing about Becoming Santa, however, is that it does a perfect job of riding the line between creepy and cutesy. It would have been all too easy for Jack and Jeff to paint a portrait of sleazy dime store Santa. In this age of pedophilia paranoia it would be simple to take a jaundiced look at old men who want to hold children. On the other side it would be equally easy to turn this into a simple celebration of the miracle of Christmas, overloading the audience with cute rather than the rigors of Santa work. Becoming Santa falls into neither trap. It looks at Santas with good faith, without assuming they're all perverts, but it also avoids turning them all into saint-like sufferers for all our Christmas wishes. That means even the most cynical and Grinch-like viewers can find something love, while those obsessed with Christmas-magic won't be offended by peeking behind the Santa curtain.
Becoming Santa looks pretty good on this DVD. It appears to have been shot on video, and that results in an image that is generally bright and fairly detailed. The black levels fluctuate a bit but I didn't notice any serious compression or artefacting issues. The film is available with 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. Both keep the spoken parts audible and well balanced with the choice Christmas tunes on the soundtrack. Sadly, there are no extras.
This is going to be a delicate film for the little ones. Depending on how you handle the Santa story with them, children can enjoy this as purely a documentary about those people who play Santa because he can't be everywhere. Once they've grown up a bit, this could easily be a family friendly documentary that acknowledges that Santa doesn't exist without spoiling anyone's Christmas cheer. The true Grinches out there might find the film a bit too much, but for everyone else this is a solid documentary.
Becoming Santa is a wonderful documentary for anyone who has ever been curious about what it takes to play Santa. For those with a weakness for Christmas it manages to be informative without killing anyone's cheer, and for the cynical it manages to avoid lathering on all the sentimental goo that some Christmas productions revel in. The lack of extras is disappointing, but the feature is worth a solid holiday rental.
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