When Superman: The Movie Became Santa Claus: The Movie

Dec 25 2013, 12:05pm CST | by

When Superman: The Movie Became Santa Claus: The Movie
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

This December 15th was the 35th anniversary of the theatrical release of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. The groundbreaking superhero adventure was of course a massive box office smash, earning $300 million worldwide way back in 1978, making it one of the ten-biggest global success of all time at that moment. Despite a tumultuous production that involved shooting two films at the same time, a record-high budget of around $55 million for the first film, and enough backstage intrigue to fill a very long book, the Warner Bros. picture earned rave reviews, a special Oscar for its groundbreaking special effects (yes, we did believe a man could fly), and a place in the history books as the template for pretty much every superhero origin story that would follow in its footsteps. Yes, watching Superman: The Movie makes you realize just how perfectly Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz distilled the iconic three-act origin story structure (initial trauma and/or discovery of powers, experimentation with powers and public appearances, discovery and showdown with the arch villain) for that kind of heroic journey, paving the way for Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, and Santa Claus.

Wait, Santa Claus? Yes, Santa Claus. Most of you have probably never seen the 1985 box office flop Santa Claus: The Movie. It came out over Thanksgiving weekend of 1985 and got hammered by MGM’s Rocky IV. The film opened with just $5.6 million (good for #2 back in those days) and ended its run with $23.7m, or just a touch more than the $19m that Rocky IV made over the Fri-Sun portion of Thanksgiving. The picture, which was a US/Britain co-production distributed by Tri-Star (which is now a division of Sony), and it’s frankly not very good at all. Costing $55m, the film was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the father/son producing duo responsible for the Superman film franchise. It was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who had just directed the failed 1984 Warner Bros. release  Supergirl ($14m in domestic grosses) for the producing duo. This is all important because if you ever get around to watching Santa Claus: The Movie, you’ll notice that it’s basically a remake of Superman: The Movie.

I’m not going to rehash the entire plot, but if you boil down the film’s narrative structure, as well as major plot points, it’s beat-for-beat a case of pouring the Superman formula into a Santa Claus Christmas mug. Both film’s first acts concern an allegedly grand and mythic retelling of their hero’s basic origins. It’s all would-be Claus David Huddleston can do not to open the picture by gravely intoning that “this is no fantasy”. The film opens with Claus and his wife delivering toys to kids in a local village only to be caught in a blinding snowstorm.  They freeze to death only to be rescued and revived inside a magical place at the North Pole by what would become Santa’s elves.  The rest of the first third involves Claus learning the ropes of how he would eventually become that guy who flies around the world in a sleigh delivering presents to every child on Earth.

After this “discovery of powers” act, we’re off to the middle chunk of the movie, which drops are now able-bodied hero into the big city populace so he can do his thing and perform his respective magic. The Earth person that Superman latches onto is of course Lois Lane, because Margot Kidder is smart and hot. Claus is married, so his Earthbound companion is a young homeless boy who gets to ride on Santa’s sleigh in a scene in no way meant to remind audiences of Superman’s night flight with Lois Lane (no, the kid doesn’t ask Santa if he can read his mind). And of course, unbeknownst to Santa Claus, there is a villainous scheme afoot. John Lithgow’s evil toy maker B.Z. is in no way supposed to remind anyone of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, even if his scheme to take over Christmas by selling magical candy canes that (unbeknownst to him) will explode when exposed to light will likely feel more at home with Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Santa Claus saves the day with the help of his favorite orphan and Dudley Moore as a disgraced elf in need of redemption, Christmas is saved, Santa Claus is again a believer in the power of giving, and B.Z.’s exploding candy canes accidentally free the three murderous super-powered elves who were exiled at the film’s conclusion, setting up a grand cliffhanger for Santa Claus II. How I wish I weren’t making that last part up. It’s not an exact match anymore than Batman Begins is exactly like Spider-Man. But the using of the Superman: The Movie formula to try and craft an equally definitive Santa Claus movie (something the filmmakers are more than upfront about on the blu-ray bonus features) makes the film somewhat ahead-of-its time. This is both an amusing curiosity that I’ve wanted to write about for years and a strange example of a film distinctly ahead of its time.

Today we see formula appropriation all the time, from the obvious examples of comic book origin films (pour the Superman: The Movie formula into the Captain America universe and *poof*, Captain America: The First Avenger) to the current trend of darker or more action-packed fairy tale revamps such as Alice In Wonderland and Hansel & Gretel: Witch HuntersSanta Claus: The Movie is not a good film, but it is a fascinating exhibit of one of the first modern examples of what Corey Ated called “The Epic-ifcation of the Hollywood Blockbuster“. The Salkinds didn’t just want to make a Santa Claus movie. They wanted to make THE Santa Claus movie, turning our jolly old gift-giving elf into the equivalent of a superhero and his film into a would-be blockbuster adventure. Today this kind of thing is taken for granted, as we have seen in the likes of Snow White and the Huntsman or Oz: The Great and Powerful.

But in 1985, just eight years after Star Wars and four years before Batman, audiences were barely used to the idea of the blockbuster itself, let alone the idea of taking well-known properties that weren’t inherently appropriate for “epic-fication”  and blowing them up to epic scale. The world wasn’t ready for a film like Santa Claus: The Movie back in 1985. The world would clearly be ready for such a thing today. I’m not sure if that’s progress. For those who are curious today, you can buy the film for $10 either on Amazon Instant Video or via its Lionsgate-distributed 25th Anniversary blu-ray from any online outlet. Or you can watch it right now via Netflix Instant (I probably should have started with that option). I’m not saying you should, but you can. It’s a bizarre curiosity and a sign of what was to come.

Source: Forbes Business


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