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Dueling Santas

Both John Hughes' Miracle on 34th Street, his remake of the 1947 classic, and The Santa Clause are new holiday movies that are every bit as traditional, sappy and satisfying as the old holiday movies.

True, The Santa Clause has a slightly new twist, a Yuletide theme retooled for families who have more in common with the Bradys and their stepbunch than they have with the nuclear family of Ozzie and Harriet, but basically both films tread a familiar path. They're both harmless fairy stories. In The Santa Clause, divorced dad Tim Allen accidentally ices the guy in the red suit, assumes his Christmas Eve duties and then earns the love and respect of his own child. Miracle on 34th Street, modern version, is -- in terms of plot, anyway -- just like Miracle on 34th Street, classic version, except that Natalie Wood is dead, we see a Santa's butt-crack and money, not mail, is used in the courtroom finale.

It's in non-plot areas that Hughes veers, and errs, from his '40s model. While Hughes -- who, though the producer rather than the director, is obviously the mind behind the movie -- has given us a well-heeled world where everyone has an exquisite cashmere topcoat (except Santa, who's tweedy), don't be fooled by appearances. This Miracle is more crude and slovenly than the original. The 1940s Miracle realized that willingly suspending one's disbelief is not at all stupid, but that relationship between intelligence and imagination is lost on Hughes. Having set up his fantasy world, Hughes doesn't cruise on through to the happy conclusion. Instead he pushes the plot along crudely; way overemphasizing each new twist and assuming his audience is slightly dumber than a mud fence. Most moviegoers would "get it" even if the scene of Santa feeding a reindeer named Prancer lasted only a few seconds. Even if the name Prancer was mentioned only three or four times. But no, it goes on and on, just so even the dullest stick will understand this Kringle character really is Santa and he really is visiting his reindeer.

And no, Miracle isn't under-intellectual because it's a kids' movie. The average kid is sharp enough to realize that when a character named Ed Collins is identified, repeatedly, then any Mrs. Ed Collins who appears must be his wife. But no, Hughes insults us by having Ed Collins refer to Mrs. Ed Collins as his wife, several times, just so we know.

Miracle on 34th Street has good performances and, obviously, a time-tested story. Unfortunately, our enjoyment of this pleasant fantasy is constantly interrupted by Hughes' suggestions that we're too stupid to keep up with the story. This tone becomes so trying that Kriss Kringle's legal battles would bore if not for the saving grace of J.T. Walsh's deliciously nasty performance as the prosecutor. His sly, sullen tone keeps the show from being unbearably sticky. Then he gets gooey, too, and everyone drives off into the snowy countryside to live happily every after.

Superficially, it might seem that Miracle and The Santa Clause are equal feel-good flicks about single parents and the holiday magic we carry in our hearts all year long. However, the

ifference between these two movies goes deeper than real reindeer (in Miracle) versus fake (in The Santa Clause).

The Santa Clause is a sprightlier, more festive film, and this is not just because its story is new. Despite all of the movie's cheap gags, its story has a broader emotional spectrum than the new Miracle. The Santa Clause is more fantastic, too. Darling special effects keep the early scenes light and a extravagant North Pole workshop encourages wide-eyed wonder and a commitment to the tale.

Tim Allen plays his usual well-meaning but overwhelmingly crude character and Eric Lloyd has some real moments as his son, Charlie. Bernard the Elf though, all but steals the show. The Ubermensch in charge of the workshop has subtle wit and David Krumholtz, a mere lad in real life, plays his role with a style that M. Emmet Walsh could be proud of.

Neither The Santa Clause nor the new Miracle on 34th Street is a threat to It's a Wonderful Life (or even Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story), but they should hold up okay throughout the season.

Miracle on 34th Street. Directed by Les Mayfield. With Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins and Mara Wilson.

Rated PG.
114 minutes.

The Santa Clause.
Directed by John Pasquin. With Tim Allen.
Rated PG.
95 minutes.

 
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