Judge Erich Asperschlager swears he caught something from Santa Claus.
Finding Santa Will Be the Adventure of a Lifetime!
Every year, new Christmas specials try to work their way into the elite club of must-watch annual classics. Trouble is, most newcomers tend to cover well-worn ground. Let's face it: it's not easy coming up with an original idea for a holiday special. It's even harder, considering how nostalgic we all get for the familiar this time of year.
In 2008, writer-director Steven de Souza tried to break from tradition with his own take on the Christmas special—Gotta Catch Santa Claus, starring William Shatner as the Man in Red. If anyone can rethink the holiday special formula, it should be the guy who wrote Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Beverly Hills Cop III. Right?
'Twas the day before Christmas, in the small village of Anytown, and a boy named Trevor has just learned his friend Veronica doesn't believe in Santa Claus. Not only that, she couches her disbelief in a passion they both share: science. Unfazed by mathematical calculations about the limitations of time, mass, and reindeer speed, Trevor vows to prove the existence of Santa Claus. With the help of his other friends and an experimental laser gun, he comes up with a plan to capture St. Nick when he flies by that night. But Trevor isn't the only one who wants to nab him. A Santa-hating ice monster called LeFreeze has just awoken from his 100-year slumber, and he's itching to take down his jolly old nemesis once and for all.
The biggest problem with Gotta Catch Santa Claus is that it can't quite figure out what it wants to be. In promotional interviews, de Souza emphasized the story's scientific angle. If this was actually about the dilemma of believing in a magical gift-giving elf when basic principles of physics prove that one man delivering toys to every child in the world in one night is impossible, he might have had something. Like all major belief systems, faith (child-like or otherwise) is central to the Santa storyline, and to Christmas itself.
Trevor's faith in the face of Veronica's scientific dismissals comes close to breaking new ground for a Christmas special. Religious subject matter aside, most holiday entertainment either takes Santa's existence—and his ability to do the wonderful things he does—as read, or ignores the big man completely. This special is certainly the first I've seen to tackle the philosophical and theological questions Santa's yearly journey raises. Is it better to believe in something you've never seen than to have undeniable proof? Does cold calculation trump the certainty of the heart? No sooner has Gotta Catch Santa Claus started off down this interesting road than the whole thing gets hijacked by the unnecessary inclusion of an ice beast from space with a chip on his shoulder.
I understand why the filmmakers added the LeFreeze character. You need tension and conflict to tell a good story, and without a clear villain they risked turning the kids into the bad guys. In the world of Christmas specials, that's a big no-no. But for most of the story it's unclear why LeFreeze hates Santa Claus. If it was because kids spend more time scanning the night skies for Santa's sleigh than for heavenly bodies like the meteor he calls home, LeFreeze's anger might fit the larger faith vs. science theme. Instead, (spoiler alert) it turns out he hates Santa because he never received a present he asked for. Yeah, him and just about every kid who's ever lived. By the time Gotta Catch Santa Claus reaches its climactic confrontation, all of the interesting questions raised in the first half are long since forgotten.
It's obvious de Souza wanted to make a "different" kind of Christmas special. Trevor tells us so in both the opening and closing narration. Casting Shatner as Santa Claus was a big step in that direction, as was turning Mrs. Claus from a plump matron into a slinky vixen who's more Cougar Town than Santa's Village. Characterizations aside, though, there isn't much to distinguish Gotta Catch Santa Claus from any number of CGI holiday specials. The animation is about what you'd expect for television. There's not much detail in the modeling, and it relies far too heavily on simple backgrounds. Still, it looks nice on DVD, full of bright colors to woo the kiddies. The 5.1 soundtrack favors the front speakers, with the occasional surround effect. It more than handles the special's original songs, which include the title track, LeFreeze's big number "List of My Own," and a four other light rockers.
The DVD bonus features are pretty light. The most interesting is a collection of deleted scenes. Though they're mostly just animatics and storyboards with placeholder voices, they show just how different the special was before what must have been some hefty retooling. Originally, Trevor, not Veronica, was the non-believer. His motivation to catch Santa wasn't to prove he's real, but rather to collect a prize offered by a local radio station in what has to be the worst thought-out promotional contest of all time. The extras go downhill pretty quickly after that. There's a 3-minute "outtake" showing Santa in the recording booth trying out different readings of lines from "Deck the Halls," which also runs at the end of the special following the credits. They must really have wanted people to see Shatner yukking it up to put it on the disc twice. I didn't even want to watch it once. There are also sing-along videos for two songs from the movie, if your kids are into that kind of thing.
Gotta Catch Santa Claus is harmless holiday fun. Your kids might enjoy it, but there isn't enough here to recommend to adults. Writer de Souza may have wanted to reinvent the Christmas special, but the finished project lands squarely in the middle of the road. If you want to see Shatner play Santa Claus, save your DVD money and try to catch this on TV instead.
It's off to juvie for these scheming Santa-nappers. Guilty.
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