During this Christmas season, if you want your child to believe that the world is coming to an end from greed and indifference, and for him or her (or god forbid “ze” or “hir”) to think that Santa is an aggressive, violent, psychotic rageaholic with possible suicidal tendencies…then by all means, give them the gift of love and put 2006’s made-for-cable movie The Year Without a Santa Claus under the tree: certainly in the running for the worst Christmas movie ever made.
By Paul Mavis
A live-action remake from The Wolper Company and Warner Bros. of the 1974 Rankin/Bass stop motion animated classic, The Year Without a Santa Claus is a nauseating, angry, joyless little holiday confection sure to poison any child unlucky enough to chance upon it. This hate-filled stocking stuffer has nothing but contempt for its intended audience, promoting the worst possible beliefs about people, while cloaking itself, incredibly, in the fake guise of a meaningful lesson about the holidays: the gall that the cretinous makers of this film have is really quite audacious.
Now, just to be clear: I’m not a purist. I’m not against the notion of remaking beloved TV and movie classics. I do find it funny, though, that today’s inept, ideas-bankrupt Hollywood keeps insisting on doing them; they usually turn out to be unprofitable, as well as artistically inferior (Fox’s recent live TV musical abomination of a A P.C. Christmas Story is an instant classic example of bad remake judgement). What does bother me, though, are when scriptwriters (and I use that term loosely in context with this particular film) thoughtfully update the film for modern audiences (i.e.: show those rednecks in fly-over country how stupid they are to bitterly cling to their hateful American traditions).
And so it is with the “new and improved” The Year Without a Santa Claus. One-time big shot movie director Ron Underwood, with thoughtful help from screenwriters Larry Wilson and Tom Martin, take the simple story that Rankin and Bass used back in ’74, and twist it into something mean-spirited and unkind–what a surprise from Hollywood! Rankin and Bass’ animated classic, with the voice talents of Shirley Booth, Mickey Rooney, and Dick Shawn, proposed that Santa woke up one day and decided he was too tired to deliver presents for Christmas; he just wanted to stay in bed. Believing nobody cared anymore about him or Christmas, Santa makes it known that there won’t be any Christmas this year. Jingle and Jangle, sent by Mrs. Claus to find some Christmas spirit, go to Southtown to find the Yuletide spirit necessary to get Santa out of bed. Of course, Santa goes to find them, and realizes that people do need him, after all. End of nice story.
With the live-action update, things have changed considerably on Earth. First of all, Santa (a grotesque John Goodman) isn’t really Santa anymore; he’s more of a “toy delivery platform” for Santa Co., a huge toy conglomerate run by elves at the North Pole. His majordomo, Sparky (Chris Kattan), is an avaricious, amoral little creep who thinks the worst of people and kids, and plans on catering to their most base instincts. Santa, in an angry, depressive state, decides to stay home from Christmas, after looking out at the world (through a telescope) and seeing how rotten things really are south of the pole (having fun yet, kids?). The filmmakers kindly illustrate this sad state of affairs by showing carolers getting pelted with snow balls, two parents fighting over a doll, and a punk rock band screaming out their song, “Santa, You Suck!” for us (bless you, Hollywood!).
Hoping to retire to Mythopolis (a retirement home for mythical characters), Santa is pressed into service by Mrs. Clause (Delta Burke) to bring back Jingle (Eddie Griffin) and Jangle (Ethan Suplee) from Southtown. Of course, it’s not enough for the filmmakers to make cliched fun of the evils of corporate America (last time I checked…Warner Bros. and NBC, the maker and distributor of this film, were huge for-profit corporations, so enjoy your paychecks, Ron and Larry and Tom). We also have a small boy, Iggy (Dylan Minnette) who dislikes the fact that his father is mayor of Southtown. Naturally, he doesn’t have any time to spend with his family: all gainfully employed fathers in Hollywood movies and TV shows are too busy with their jobs and thus, blithely indifferent to the “real” needs of their families.
It’s difficult to pick out the single most disturbing element from the myriad set of problems in The Year Without a Santa Claus, but clearly, John Goodman’s insane interpretation of Santa rings the biggest warning jingle bell. Now I’ve seen all kinds of Santas in animated and live-action features, and to-a-Santa, they’ve been kind, loving figures who kids naturally gravitate toward…not counting, of course, the repellent Disney Bad Santa features (wait; do you hear that? It’s Walt spinning in his grave for the 12th time today). But Goodman brings a whole new, unwelcome dimension to the kindly old gentleman, playing him not so much as grumpy Scrooge, but more like a severely depressed, possibly psychotic individual in serious need of analysis. This Santa doesn’t need a cup of hot chocolate and a candy cane to relax after a hard night of delivering toys; he needs a dose of electroshock therapy and a gross each of Xanex and Wellbutrin.
First of all, Goodman looks terrible in the film, with a sweaty, pallid complexion, angry, bleary red eyes, and with visible difficulty in breathing (I love a wheezing Santa). After seeing Goodman ranting and raving for the first ten minutes, with all but foam coming out of his mouth, my eleven-year-old said, quite seriously, “Is Santa going to have a heart attack?” To go along with Santa’s unpleasant physical appearance is Santa’s exceedingly unpleasant demeanor. He’s constantly yelling at people in this film. And when he’s not yelling, he’s threatening them with physical violence, going so far as to actually hit Sparky in one scene. In another uncomfortable moment in the movie, Santa confronts a drunken dog catcher, with Goodman twisting his face hideously, while leaning threateningly into the dog catcher’s face. I think this may be a first for an on-screen Santa: Santa as Potential Felon. My littlest girl, who unfortunately watched this atrocity with me, looked up at me during this scene and said, quite solemnly, with her serious, quiet little face, “Santa’s going to hit him, like he hit Sparky. Just watch.” All I can say to that–quite seriously–is I wish eternal shame on the makers of this film, for showing a little girl a Santa that’s a bully and a thug.
But of course, that’s the ultimate irony of a film written and produced by too-hip-for-words Hollywood types who think they’re the last word on irony, and who actively despise the “normal.” The film is filled with trendy references to the evils of commercializing Christmas and the depressing nature of today’s world that doesn’t have a place for Santa Claus. Yet what’s the producers’ solution for that distressing trend? How about showing a seriously damaged Santa that pushes people around, threatens them, and even hits them? The film puts on a sham front, slamming what it thinks is modern society’s indifference to Santa and Christmas, but what do the producers do to elevate him, or the holiday season? Why, they show hot blonde chicks in skimpy outfits, gyrating behind Harvey Fierstein’s Heat Miser. And they have one of those guys from Queer Eye making bitchy at Santa. And they inexplicably have the drunken dog catcher lift up his shirt in front of a small boy, showing his motto tattooed on his belly (how did anyone think that was appropriate?). And they have Eddie Griffin’s elf Jingle make racist jokes and talk about booty calls, while having him say the word “bullsh*#” in a Christmas film aimed at kids (the audio editors cut it off just in time, but it’s clear that’s what he’s saying). The film makes a big deal about the world changing for the worse; the irony, of course, is that malignant movies like The Year Without a Santa Claus are, in their small building block way, one of the primary causes of that change.
None of the other actors fair particularly well, either, in The Year Without a Santa Claus. Delta Burke, (or at least I think it’s Delta Burke–they curiously never go to a close-up), seems–literally–distant and unhappy; Chris Kattan unfortunately is perfect as an annoying, officious little git, while Michael McKean disappears as the Snow Miser. In an effort to find at least one positive element in The Year Without a Santa Claus, I will admit that Harvey Fierstein did kind of crack me up when I first saw him as Heat Miser. Channeling what seems to be Fred Sanford on poppers, Fierstein comes closest to bringing a cartoon character to life, and for that, I give him credit. But the stupid things he’s made to say and do (hey kids, he gets an gets icicle stuck in his ass…Merry Christmas!) sink any chance he had at coming away clean from this mess. The subplot of the small boy and his father needs no mentioning; it’s tired and cliched and phoney, and tacked on to make the vulgarities of the Santa story palatable…which doesn’t work. Bah, humbug, you creeps.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.