Director – Jeannot Szwarc, Screenplay – David Newman, Story – David Newman & Leslie Newman, Producers – Ilya Salkind & Pierre Spengler, Photography – Arthur Ibbetson, Music – Henry Mancini, Model Effects – Derek Meddings, Special Effects – Paul Wilson, Flying Effects – David Lane, Puppetry – Mark Wilson, Production Design – Anthony Pratt. Production Company – Alexander & Ilya Salkind
David Huddleston (Santa Claus), Dudley Moore (Patch), John Lithgow (B.Z.), Christian Fitzpatrick (Joe), Carrie Kei Hem (Cordelia), Judy Cornwell (Anya Claus), Jeffrey Kramer (Towzer), Burgess Meredith (Ancient Elf)
A large and loving middle-aged man and his wife become trapped in a snowdrift on their reindeer sled. Near death, they are saved by elves and taken to an invisible factory at the North Pole. The elves want the man to become the new Santa Claus and make gifts to give to children the world over. He accepts the position. He comes to learn how time is dilated so that Christmas Eve lasts all year round and he can deliver all the presents, using reindeer that are fed with a magical grain to make them fly. Things go well until the elf Patch, unhappy at the failure of his attempts to introduce an automated toy production line, decides to head out into the world. There Patch’s naivete is set upon by the ruthless toy manufacturer B.Z. who plans to exploit Patch’s unstable anti-gravity candy.
Santa Claus – The Movie came from father and son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind. The Salkinds came to attention in the 1970s with their production of The Three Musketeers (1973). This overran its length so much so that they were able to cut the film in two and release the rest as a sequel The Four Musketeers (1974). The Salkinds then went onto their greatest success, their adaptation of the comic-book legend Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve. This time they intentionally set out to make two films at once and released the second part, after much publicised production problems, as Superman II (1980). Both films were enormous successes. The Salkinds continued on in the Superman mythos with the overtly slapstick Superman III (1983), Supergirl (1984) and then the tv series Superboy (1987-91), all of which showed a rapid decline in quality, serious treatment of the comic-book source material and public response.
Santa Claus – The Movie was the Salkinds third attempt at crafting a film out of a popular culture figure. They lavished a $50 million budget on the film, which at the time made Santa Claus debatably the most expensive film ever made. However, the film’s box-office performance barely even earned a half of that ($23.7 million) back in worldwide rentals. After Santa Claus‘s failure, the Salkinds fairly much came to the end of their careers. They made various productions subsequently, such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Rainbow Thief (1989) and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), but these were flops that barely even received theatrical releases.
Here the Salkinds attempt to craft a Santa Claus origin story goes disastrously astray. The film is a hideously overinflated dud. They recruited Jeannot Szwarc, the French-born director of the genre likes of The Devil’s Daughter (1973), Bug! (1975), Jaws 2 (1978), Somewhere in Time (1980) and their Supergirl flop, as well as Superman series co-writers David and Leslie Newman and several of the Superman effects people.
The film came with a $50 million budget – in 2010s terms this would be something akin to a $200+ million budget. This results in a gluttonous on-screen consumption that seems almost criminal in its wastage. At a $10 million film, Santa Claus – The Movie could have worked cheerfully but the budgetary excess drags it out to a level that deadens all spontaneity. The production echoes statically around vast, oversized sets filled with extras in pretty but boring elf costumes – it seems like a musical waiting for the music to start. There would have been no problem to trim the film of half-an-hour of all the dwarves dancing. The proceedings are desperately in need of a sense of humour, any sort of lightness at all, to counter the leaden treacliness.
In the cast, David Huddleston and Judy Cornwell are robust, rosy-cheeked and cheerful. Physically they are perfect for the roles of Santa and Mrs Claus but the trite dialogue leaves them stranded. Dudley Moore gives a performance filled with endless unfunny ‘elf-help’ jokes that is painfully embarrassing to watch. The special effects team seems committed to recreating all the effects as Christmas card dioramas – the sleigh tediously trails twinkling dust behind it – but the result is that the effects retain all the two-dimensionality of Christmas cards too.