Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but he's not getting Judge Clark Douglas anything this year.
Discover the miracle.
"This guy ain't dangerous. He may be off his rails a bit, but he ain't nothing. And if he wants to call himself Santa Claus, then God bless him."
Facts of the Case
Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough, Jurassic Park) is an elderly gentleman who looks a lot like Santa Claus. So, when the holidays roll around, it's not too tough for Kris to find work. A high-powered businesswoman (Elizabeth Perkins, Big) spots Kris on the street and hires him to play Santa in the annual Cole's Holiday Parade and in the Cole's New York store location. This is particularly easy for Kris, because he actually thinks he is Santa Claus. Most regard this as a charming aspect of his character, but there are some folks who would like the "mentally unstable" man locked up and put away. Kris quickly finds himself in the middle of a legal trial that attempts to answer the question of whether or not this Mall Santa is the genuine article.
It's not terribly fair to this version of Miracle on 34th Street that I watched the original 1947 film just a few days beforehand. You see, this Miracle on 34th Street is a reasonably tolerable and well-made holiday film, offering a modestly engaging story, decent performances, and the expected measure of giggles and warm fuzzies. Unfortunately, it's also a thoroughly unnecessary film that offers absolutely no persuasive evidence that it deserves to exist.
Unlike many remakes, this one makes very few deviations from the original film, more or less only altering things that were necessary to update in order to move the story from the 1940s to the 1990s. In fact, so much of the original screenplay by George Seaton is left intact that the late Seaton was credited with John Hughes as the co-writer of the new screenplay. Memorable lines are repeated, the plot follows the same beats, and it all builds to the same conclusion. By sticking so close to what made the original film work, this film more or less ensures some basic degree of success, but it also never manages to become superior to the original (or even match the original) at any point on any level. It's a pale shadow of a Christmas classic.
Let's start with the cast, since good casting is such a large part of what made the original film work. The group of actors included here are not untalented people. Richard Attenborough is an old pro, generating warmth and charm in the part of Kris Kringle. Young Mara Wilson is cute and likable as young Susan. Elizabeth Perkins manages to be convincing as Mrs. Walker. But Attenborough makes the mistake of attempting to mimic the Oscar-winning performance of Edmund Gwenn, and no one could ever possibly match Gwenn's perfect Santa Claus. Mara Wilson is cute, but she lacks the nuance of Natalie Wood. Perkins is fine, but is less dynamic in the part than the great Maureen O'Hara. These performances are failures in comparison to the originals, and these are the good performances. I cringe watching the dull-as-nails Dylan McDermott as Kris's attorney and Mrs. Walker's lover, never managing to rise above high school play-level acting.
Despite the fact that little has been changed, this film runs 113 minutes while the original only ran 96 minutes. Where does the additional time come from? First, it comes from constant scenic shots that offer warm images set to popular holiday tunes and/or a selection of Bruce Broughton's syrupy score. These moments add nothing to the film other than a steady diet of emotional manipulation, attempting to force viewers to get into the Christmas spirit. Seaton's film realized the inherent emotional impact of the story and made no attempt to add additional punch in an artificial manner. Why didn't director Les Mayfield put similar trust in this material? The other padding comes during the courtroom portion of the film, which now takes up nearly half of the running time. My only complaint with the original film was that the courtroom material was nothing short of preposterous. Alas, that's doubly the case this time, as the reason for Kris' acquittal is even flimsier than the one provided in the first film. Of all the things to give even more attention to, this film picked the courtroom drama elements? Somebody deserves a lump of coal.
Another strength of the first film was its ambiguity about whether or not Kris Kringle was actually Santa Claus. Alas, this version makes it considerably clearer that Kris is unquestionably Santa, weakening the argument that, "faith is believing in something even when common sense tells you not to." Common sense most assuredly tells you to believe in this Santa Claus.
"Clark, you're harping too much on how this film compares to the original," you may be saying. Maybe so, but when a film connects itself so firmly and faithfully to its source material without coming up with any substantial elements of its own, it's difficult not to think about how it stacks up to its predecessor.
The Blu-ray transfer is okay, offering a warm yet flawed image. The bright seasonal color palette is conveyed with considerable vibrance, though the image is a bit soft and lacking in detail at times. Facial detail is particularly lacking, and there's some noticeable evidence of DNR. Blacks are nice and deep while shading is adequate. The audio is quite stellar, conveying the chipper soundtrack with jolly enthusiasm. Dialogue and sound design blend together quite nicely. Overall, both the audio and video manage to provide tolerable and satisfactory without ever becoming something genuinely exceptional. Unfortunately, there are no extras of any sort on this bare-bones disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film will probably play much better for someone who hasn't seen the original film. However, with the classic version getting a Blu-ray release to go along with this one, I don't see why anyone other than closed-minded folks who can't tolerate black-and-white movies would choose this version over that one.
A pointless remake gets a mediocre Blu-ray release. Bah, humbug.
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