Santa Claus: A List of Movies Naughty and Nice

Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures
November 29th, 2013

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Santa Claus: A List of Movies Naughty and Nice

Santa Claus is a man of many names, including Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and Ol' Saint Nick. He also is a man of many stories. The myth of Santa persists, passed on by parents to wide-eyed children and retold each Christmas in poems, pageants, and prose. His legend lives through movies as well, though filmmakers often take liberty with details, reshaping the man into a villain, retelling his origin, or using the idea of Santa Claus to morph the ordinary into the extraordinary. A sampling of movies that center around the jolly old elf illustrates a few of the transformations he has undergone at the hands of screenwriters.

In "Miracle on 34th Street," viewers are persuaded to forego their usual cynicism. This 1947 classic demonstrates that genuine goodness can still be a part of day-to-day existence and that magic is not confined to the North Pole. In fact, magic might be found in a department store on 34th Street in New York City. Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) hires the real Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to play the role of Macy's Santa. When the store psychologist realizes Kris actually believes himself to be Santa Claus, he institutionalizes him. By the movie's end, Kris proves he is not insane and Walker's young daughter (Natalie Wood) believes in the miracle of Christmas once again.

Children's author Chris Van Allsburg's award-winning tale "The Polar Express" made it to the big screen in 2004 with much help from Tom Hanks, who provided voices for five characters and helped produce the animated film. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the movie follows a young boy on Christmas Eve as he travels to the North Pole and home again, moving from doubt to belief. The train ride to the North Pole becomes a journey of self-discovery for Billy, a boy who wants to believe in Santa Claus and all that surrounds him but who hesitates to do so in the face of his family's insistence that Santa is merely a myth.

"The Santa Clause," a 1994 release directed by John Pasquin, provides a comedic perspective and a more slapstick version of Saint Nicholas. Divorced dad Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) accidentally kills Santa one Christmas Eve and inadvertently enters into a contract in which Scott transforms over the next year into Santa's replacement. Over the course of the movie, Scott's son regains his lost Christmas spirit as Scott reclaims his place in his son's life. Again, Santa Claus' mental stability, along with people's belief in Santa Claus, is questioned. However, faith ultimately prevails.

In the 2010 Finnish film "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale," the Santa Claus story becomes a dark fable in which naughty children are murdered by Santa in punishment for bad behavior. Accompanied by an army of violent elves, Santa is no saint in this movie. Though the film includes ample slaying and even male nudity, "Rare Exports" is more than a typical slasher film. The movie has surprising cinematic value in its production and videography and the plot twists and turns it takes in its portrayal of the mythical figure.

"Bad Santa," a 2003 comedy directed by Terry Zwigoff, may be off kilter, but it shares themes of transformation and evolution with more traditional holiday movies. The plot revolves around a jaded, self-preserving criminal who initially intends to take advantage of the holiday season by posing as a department store Santa Claus so that he can case the place and plan a theft. However, his cynical shell melts thanks to a troubled child he befriends and the miraculous power of Christmas. Though initially only imitating Santa, conman Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) eventually embodies the spirit of Saint Nicholas. Faith and goodness are restored, and hope prevails.

"The Legends of Santa" is a 2009 documentary that explores the history of Santa Claus and his various incarnations throughout time and in different cultures. The source of Santa's red suit and rosy cheeks is revealed, and the symbolism of the legend is examined along with the possible true stories that spawned the myth. The film also illuminates the human search to find meaning and goodness where none seem to exist. The documentary demonstrates why the belief in Santa Claus continues to hold value, especially in commercialized modern societies where people desperately wish to believe.

All these movies present a portrait of a hero of some sort, and all present the possibility of finding heroes in unlikely places and people. It's not necessary to travel to the North Pole to find magic or meaning.