Christmas films: On screen, Santa Claus is a mercurial figure

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In Elf (2003), Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human who was mistakenly raised in the North Pole by Santa Claus and his helpers.

When he finds out the truth about his heritage, he travels to New York to find his parents and ends up in a department store during Advent.

Tim Allen in Father Christmas.

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Tim Allen in Father Christmas.

“Is Santa Claus there?” Buddy asks, excitement building in his voice. “I know him!” He is, however, disappointed when the person the shop has hired introduces himself: the man smells “beef and cheese” and “sits on a throne of lies”.

The “real” Santa Claus appears in the final act, his sleigh propelled by the festive joy Buddy has inspired in the hearts of jaded New Yorkers.

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The holiday season mascot has had a clearly defined appearance since the turn of the 19th century. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a popular poem by Clement Clarke Moore published in 1823, described the arrival of the sleigh and reindeer; brandishing a bag of toys, Santa Claus is “all dressed in fur”, with cheeks “like roses”, a “large face and a little round belly”.

Will Ferrell in Elf

Provided

Will Ferrell in Elf

The first film about Santa Claus, a silent short released in 1898, showed the man in the familiar coat with white trims. It arrived on screen two years before that other everlasting favorite, Sherlock Holmes, and has stayed there ever since. A handful of Hollywood stars including Tom Hanks and Kurt Russell put on beards.

While the visual iconography of Santa Claus has remained consistent in these cinematic depictions, everything else about the big guy in red has been the subject of experimentation. Two recent films have told contrasting origin stories.

In the animated tale Klaus (2019), a reclusive lumberjack and toy maker (voiced by JK Simmons) gives a handmade gift to a sad child; when other boys and girls hear about it, Klaus is inundated with letters and requests and the tradition is born.

Canal Studio

A Boy Called Christmas is an origin story of Santa Claus.

The protagonist of A boy called Christmas (2021), meanwhile, is Nikolas, a young man who sets off on a journey to the magical land of Elfhelm and, in the process, becomes a gift distributor.

Yet some films have put an end to the notion that Santa Claus is an unchanging figure, instead suggesting that the role of magical gift-bearer can be taken on by more or less anyone.

Fred claus (2007) follows Santa’s cynical younger brother (Vince Vaughn), who is pushed into action when his brother injures his back.

In Arthur christmas (2011), a British animated film, it’s about a son who has to fill the furry boots and give alms to a child who has been missed.

Santa (1994) follows a toy salesman forced to take St Nick’s place after being accidentally killed on Christmas Eve.

The hero of Miracle on 34th Street (1947 and remade in 1973 and 1994) is Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn in the original), a lookalike who gets a job at Macy’s and is soon embroiled in a lengthy legal battle to establish he’s the real article.

Some storytellers have sought to fully penetrate the mystique. An irreverent children’s book by Raymond Briggs, published in 1973, showed Santa Claus doing all kinds of mundane chores, including going to the bathroom.

The filmmakers followed suit and focused on Santa’s flaws as much as his fantastic qualities. In 1991, Briggs’ book was adapted into an animated film. Santa Claus, with Mel Smith providing the voice of the cranky main character.

Fat man (2020) starred Mel Gibson as a drinker Santa Claus who despairs of the state of the world’s children. In a disconcertingly violent action comedy, this Claus must defend himself against a contract killer hired by a spoiled rich kid who has been placed on the villain list; Gibson’s performance is reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s in the Death wish movie theater.

Mel Gibson in Fatman.

Provided

Mel Gibson in Fatman.

Many filmmakers played on viewers’ expectations for innocent pleasure and festive sweetness and light. Bad santa claus (2003) does it for a comedic effect: Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, a crook who poses as Santa Claus in order to rob a department store. (Despite its dark, bawdy humor, the story retains something of the seasonal wit as a gullible kid is rewarded, the bad guys get their comeuppance, and Willie comes back to him.)

The Christmas Chronicles (2018) aspires to surprise. Russell’s portrayal is suave, sexy, and a bit of rock ‘n’ roll – his character is meant to pique the interest of adults as well as children.

NETFLIX

Santa is back, but he’s got some trouble ahead of him.

Very boldly, Rare exports (2010) evokes horror. In the Finnish film, Santa Claus is imagined as a horned monster frozen in ice, assisted by a horde of bloodthirsty elves eager to get their hands on rude youngsters.

Just as the early Christian bishop did not have much in common with the Saint Nicholas who is his namesake today, the character continues to change in the 21st century.

Much like James Bond, whose requirements are martinis and fast cars, the only essential references for a plausible portrayal of Santa are snow, a white beard, a red suit and gifts.

Everything else depends on the imagination.

After all, the movies and Santa do share something crucial: They both call on people to suspend their disbelief.

© 2021 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist released under license. The original article can be found on www.economist.com


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