Disney's "The Santa Clause" is the closest thing we've had in the last twenty years to a genuine Christmas classic. It's not quite in the same league as the old "Miracle on 34th Street" or "A Christmas Carol," but it's close, and it's modern, meaning it's in widescreen, color, and stereo surround. It's the kind of film parents will play for their kids every Holiday Season, and the parents will wind up enjoying it as much as the youngsters. My wife and I don't even have children, but we've watched the video tape time and again. Now we're both glad to have the clarity and convenience of DVD.
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 the responsibility along to another. Allen is the lucky (?) fellow who inherits the job, much to his dismay, when 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 make-up. 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 too abruptly. They are both minor bothers, to be sure, 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.
Walt Disney Pictures and Buena Vista Distributing present the film in 1.85:1 widescreen, which is especially appropriate for displaying shots of Santa in his sled flying over huge vistas of scenery and for the colorful interiors of Santa's workshop. The picture quality is pleasing, natural in color tones, if not always vibrant.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is used subtly and sparingly, mainly in musical accompaniment. Voices are clear; frequency response and dynamic contrasts are about average. It's good, restrained sound.
What isn't so good is that Buena Vista remain among the few major companies that continue to provide little in the way of extras on their DVDs. The widescreen and Dolby Digital sound are what really matter, certainly, but offering only two language choices, a chapter search, and a trailer seems stingy. And, as always, BV list not one but a whole series of dire messages before the movie ever starts warning viewers against the unlawful duplication of the disc's contents. I wonder if they realize how paranoid they're beginning to sound.
"The Santa Clause" is not a laugh-out-loud, screwball comedy to knock audiences out of their seats; 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.