Saturday, December 22, 2012

Naughty or Nice: Rating the Santas

With the holidays upon us, and another Christmas movie queued up in the DVD player or on Netflix as soon as the last one ends (at least in this house), I thought it'd be time to rate several of the most notable portrayals of Santa Claus in movies and TV specials.  The big man from the North Pole has had quite a few incarnations: some nice, some not-so-nice.  This list runs the gamut.  I'm only considering the roles in which Santa himself is the character.  People briefly dressing up as, or assuming the role of, Santa don't count, so you won't see the Grinch's anti-Claus on this list, for instance.  I'm generally going from best to worst here, with 10 Sacks of Toys as the best, and 0 as the worst.

Miracle on 34th Street (1949): Edmund Gwenn

Let's face it, this one has got to top the list.  Gwenn's portrayal of Kris Kringle is so subtle, charming, and authentic that you'd think he was turning a long history of Santa roles on its head, starting from scratch with a renewed outlook on an old character. And yet this was 1949, and the rulebook for "Santa in the movies" hadn't even been written yet.  This one gets the full 10 out of 10 Sacks of Toys.

Elf (2003): Ed Asner

The modern classic.  True to the character in every line and gesture, yet alive with modern touches that keep Santa fresh without confusing the youngest believers with pop-culture irony and out-of-canon goofiness.  Only the test of time will prove whether or not this Santa will beat his current rating of 9 Sacks of Toys.

Santa Claus is Comin' To Town (1970): Mickey Rooney

The already-impish Mickey Rooney voices the titular role in this wonderfully humanizing portrayal of Kris Kringle, fleshing out the bare-bones character with his own backstory and mythology.  My only major gripe is Kringle's insistence that kids never cry or pout; I feel like the movie should have a disclaimer from Mister Rogers, telling kids that "it's OK to have bad feelings sometimes."  My son's personal favorite.  8 Sacks of Toys.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005): James Cosmo

This cameo appearance of Father Christmas is so brief that it almost doesn't deserve to be on the list, but it's such a favorite of mine that I couldn't resist.  Bubbling with the very stuff of Christmas magic, this Santa perfectly submits himself to the religious backdrop of his character -- and shines all the more brightly for it.  You really feel like this is the for-real Father Christmas, making a guest appearance from the place in which dreams live.  Only its brevity keeps it from surpassing its 8 Sacks of Toys.

Frosty the Snowman (1969): Paul Frees

A perfectly fine Santa: dusty with magic, wise and kind, dispensing soul-thawing moralizing and good cheer.  If only he didn't exist simply as a deus ex machina for the bind the plot wound itself into, he could have easily outpaced his 7 Sacks of Toys in a more cohesive role.

The Santa Clause (1994): Tim Allen

A funny, enthusiastic performance, perhaps only marred by its weirdly 1990's out-of-canon mythology that confuses the hell out of my son.  Oh, and the third movie might have dragged the franchise out a little too thin.  Tim Allen's hearty Midwestern Santa would be too modest to accept anything more than his honest 6 Sacks of Toys.

Snow (2005): Tom Cavanagh

I'm sure Ed is fine in this TV movie, but I've been in the room when it's been on about an infinity of times and I can never pay attention long enough to remember what's going on.  He gets 4 Sacks of Toys (I think?).

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): Stan Francis

As beloved as this TV special is, this Santa's got issues (at least with me).  The supposedly all-seeing-one has no clue what kind of reindeer-hazing is going on in his yards; and, once he does get a clue, he vigorously encourages it.  He spends the rest of the show not eating like a petulant toddler, and then finally gets around to delivering presents when Rudolph's nose makes it less inconvenient for him.  But make sure to watch how half-assedly he delivers those presents!  During the credits, you see the process.  One of his elves grabs a toy out of the sack, gives it an umbrella, and shoves it off the side of the sleigh.  No chimney-sliding for this Santa: he can't even be bothered to stop driving.  Only the silliness of seeing a skinny Santa gives him his 2 Sacks of Toys.

Finding Mrs. Claus (2012): Will Sasso

We're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel here.  Tim Allen's Santa may have warped the Santa-canon, but this TV movie seems completely unaware that it exists.  I'm sure Will Sasso is otherwise a decent human, but a newly-arrived space alien pretending to be a human would have more social skills than this Santa (who supposedly keeps such a close eye on each of us that his moral compass allows him to accurately judge if we're naughty or nice).  His shifty elf has to continually butt into situations in which this hapless clown might reveal himself to be Santa.  Oh, and by the way, he couldn't even be bothered to look at least a little bit like Santa.  I'm in the Christmas spirit, so I'll give him 1 Sack of Toys, as long as he doesn't trade it for magic beans on the way to the market.

Santa Claus (1959): Jose Elias Moreno

Have you ever thought about why Santa laughs "ho ho ho," and not "ha ha ha"?  My theory is that it would be too creepy to have a huge, red-faced old man barking "HA HA HA" at small children.  The Santa in this strange Mexican movie would have no qualms about barking "HA HA HA" at small children.  Perhaps only viewable via its MST3K treatment in 1993.   10 Sacks of Broken Toys (to be delivered to residents of Hell, Mordor, and Bizarro-World).

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