Disney's "The Santa Clause" is the closest thing we've had in the last twenty years to a genuine Christmas classic. Although it's not quite in the same league as "A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street," or even "A Christmas Story," it's close, and it's modern, meaning it's in widescreen, color, and 5.1 surround. It's the kind of film that parents will play for their kids every holiday season and wind up enjoying as much as the youngsters. It was good to get the movie a few years back in the clarity and convenience of DVD, but Disney's second-generation, Special Edition disc makes a good thing even better.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa clause. That's what Tim Allen, from TV's "Home Improvement," discovers when he reluctantly takes Santa's place one Christmas night. It seems that Santas are not immortal, and when one Santa is no longer able to do the work, he passes along the responsibility to another. Allen is the lucky (?) fellow who inherits the job, much to his dismay, when the previous Santa falls off his roof and lands in his front yard. But according to the fine print in the clause, once a person dons the Santa suit, he becomes the new Santa.
Allen plays Scott Calvin, a bumbling divorced dad who is caught up in all of this excitement while his son is visiting one Christmas Eve. His son goes with him delivering presents, and the next morning, not unreasonably, no one believes either of them. Things go from bad to worse for poor Scott as it gradually dawns on him that he really is going to have to be the world's new Santa Claus. Of course, his ex-wife and her new psychiatrist husband think he's losing touch with reality and want all of his visiting privileges with his son taken away. Meanwhile, Scott's facial hair is growing a mile a minute and turning white, and he's becoming more portly by the day.
Scott's physical transformation from a fairly trim, clean-shaven guy to a fat, bearded Santa is extraordinarily convincing, thanks to some realistic prosthetics and great makeup. Moreover, Scott's personality shift from an embittered, divorced man to a kindly, patient St. Nick is equally persuasive. No one is likely to confuse Tim Allen's acting talents with those of Pacino, Hoffman, or DeNiro, but Allen exudes a charming, low-key warmth that is effectively winning. My only concern is that the transition in his character comes too fast, with not enough time to let us see the gradual changes taking place. One minute he's sour, the next he's benign. Likewise, his wife's realization at the end of the picture that her ex-husband really is Santa comes rather abruptly. They are both minor bothers, however, and ones probably necessitated by the compact length of the film. Eric Lloyd plays Scott's son, Charlie; Wendy Crewson plays his former wife; Judge Reinhold plays Charlie's new step dad; and Peter Boyle appears as Scott's boss. John Pasquin directs.
Allen and company showed up for a sequel, "The Santa Clause 2," eight years later that failed to live up to its predecessor. The sequel had neither the warmth nor the wit of the original, the characters unconvincing, and the action dumbed down. As I've said before, the best children's movies are ones that appeal to adults as strongly as they do to kids. Think of "Snow White," "Toy Story 2," "Willy Wonka," "Mary Poppins," or "Monsters, Inc." Youngsters love them, and when they grow up, they still love them. Good children's entertainment can be a win-win proposition, and "The Santa Clause" is an example of good children's entertainment, good adult entertainment, and good family entertainment.
Walt Disney Pictures and Buena Vista Distributing have remastered this new DVD transfer to THX standards and at a higher bit rate than they did their first DVD edition, producing richer, deeper hues and a marginally sharper image. The colors inside Santa's North Pole headquarters are especially bright and lustrous, the picture quality more pleasing than ever, natural and vibrant.
The picture size is available in either widescreen or standard "fullscreen," each available separately. I reviewed the widescreen version, which is presented in its original theatrical-release aspect ratio, approximately 1.74:1 anamorphic, ideal for displaying the colorful interiors of Santa's workshop and for shots of Santa in his sled flying over huge vistas of scenery. Be careful when you buy or rent the disc, though, that you read the fine print on the back cover that differentiates the widescreen issue from the fullscreen.
While the video quality shows marked improvement over the original edition, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics seem to my ears about the same. The surround channels are still used subtly and sparingly, mainly in the sounds of elves at work in their workshop and musical ambiance accompaniment. Voices are clear, and frequency response and dynamic contrasts are appropriate, too. It's proper and effective, if somewhat restrained, sound.
What wasn't so good about Disney's first edition of "The Santa Clause" was that it provided almost nothing in the way of extras. The widescreen picture and Dolby Digital sound were fine, certainly, but offering only two language choices, a chapter search, and a trailer seemed more than a little stingy. This time the Disney folks have tried to rectify the situation, although there still isn't much. Now we get several items aimed entirely at kids. "So You Want To Be An Elf" is a six-minute ordeal hosted by David Krumholtz, the head elf in the movie. "Santa's Helper" is an adventure game that seems designed for the youngest possible members of the family who can hold a remote. And "Making Santa Snacks With Wolfgang" is simply bizarre, Wolfgang Puck showing us how to cook various dishes. There are also some DVD-ROM features, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests, and seventeen scene selections. English, French, and Spanish are provided for spoken languages, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired. Oddly enough, while there are nine "Sneak Peeks" at other Disney titles, the trailer for "The Santa Clause" has gone missing. Oh, well. Everything is tied together by an attractive animated menu.
"The Santa Clause" is not a laugh-out-loud, screwball comedy to knock audiences out of their seats, nor is it a satirical or cynical adult fable like "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" or "Bad Santa." Instead, it's a gentle bit of whimsy, a sweet fantasy for children and adults alike. I have the feeling it will be around for a lot of Christmases to come. It will be at our house.