The remake of George Seaton's 1947 fantasy (which has featured more than once on Christmas television) follows the original storyline quite closely. A major department store is taking part in the annual New York Christmas parade, but just before the floats set off, Father Christmas is perceived to be drunk in charge of his reindeer. A substitute has to be found, so an executive of the store enrols a likely-looking old gent with a beard. Kris Kringle turns out to be a natural for the part, on parade and in the store. The question is whether his success is due to the fact that he is a slightly dotty old man who has a way with children; or because, as he claims, he really is Santa Claus.
Postively radiant with benevolence, Richard Attenborough plays Kris with less beard, more colour and no less seasonal goodwill than Edmund Gwenn in the black-and-white original; but the emphasis in the plot has shifted significantly away from Santa himself, towards the woman department store manager (Elizabeth Perkins) who discovers him.
Seaton's film was an argument between narrow rationalism and the human need for fantasy and myth. You can well see that a remake might be relevant to the Nineties, as a reaction against the materialism of the previous decade, and the film does hint that we may understand Santa Claus as "true" on a different level from literal truth. There is also a sub-plot about a rival store's conspiracy to discredit Kringle and recover some of the business that he has been taking away from them which can also be read as an attack on the values of greed and materialism.
However, the focus is far more strongly on the store manager's daughter (Mara Wilson, in the part originally played by Natalie Wood), whose Christmas wish is for her divorced mother to give her a new father and a proper family once more. Since the mother is a working woman, fearful of emotional commitment, and her boyfriend (Dylan McDermott) is easily discouraged, the chance of their making it to the altar by the end of the year seems slim. No prizes for guessing what miracle the kindly Kringle has up his fur-lined sleeve.
The message is therefore not about our need for myth, but about simple, old-fashioned family values. Even though the film is set in a notional present (see the lap top computer on the manager's desk), the costumes, sets and even the haircuts have a distinctly Forties feel.
The chief design inspiration seems to have been the cover of Saturday Evening Post - scenes of the typical all-American family bringing home the presents, talking to Santa in Macy's, or gathered round the Christmas tree, where everything is wrapped in green paper and big red ribbons. Nineties audiences may be more ready to believe in Santa than to buy this myth of happy families.
Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas is a musical which takes a different approach to Christmas myths. The story is that the ghosts of Hallowe'en, led by the anorexic Jack Skellington, decide to kidnap Santa and hijack Christmas. Surprisingly, this conspiracy seems to be motivated by goodwill and fails mainly because the Halloweeners are unable to adopt the proper Christmas spirit. The plot is slightly dull, but the puppets, filmed in stop-action animation, are convincingly precise in their movements and oddly endearing. Only the very youngest child will be frightened by this nightmare, and some older ones will delight in Burton's quirky and inventive alternative world.
The other major Christmas release is The Pagemaster which opens today in London and stars Macaulay Culkin as the child being led through the fictionalised world of classic literature. I shall review that and Lassie in January.