Lowdown: Santa Clause is put on trial.
First, let’s clarify the versions: The Miracle on 34th Street reviewed here is not the version considered to be a classic from 1947, but rather a remake from 1994 that was aired during Christmas day itself on Channel 10. Second, let’s clarify the why: I watched the old version ages ago and wanted to refresh my memory about said miracle, given the high regard with which the film is considered (many quote it as their favorite Christmas film); my partner, on the other hand, wanted to watch it because it was referenced in a book she was reading.
In retrospect, we should have known better. Miracle on 34th Street, at least in its 1994 incarnation, seems more like a film coming out of the Joseph Goebbels production lines than a film worthy of air time and my time.
The story is only slightly different to the 1947 version; it was modernized. An American store chain, Cole’s, is in financial trouble and becomes the potential takeover target of a heartless rival chain. Things pick up for Cole’s when they pick up a new guy off the street, literally, to act as their 34th street shop’s Santa Clause ahead of the Christmas sales. That new Santa (portrayed by the very Santa like Richard Attenborough) turns out to be quite a success story, attracting and touching the kids that pay him a visit to discuss their Christmas plans. But there is something unusual about the guy: For a start, he refers to himself as Kris Kringle. Second, he seems to really believe he is the genuine article, the real Santa Clause. But is he? The rival chain puts that claim to the test, and eventually we end up with a trial to decide whether Santa exists or not.
In parallel we have ourselves another story of a single mother (Elizabeth Perkins), who is rather dull and depressing with work the main thing on her mind; her daughter, who craves the love of a family; and the mother’s lawyer of a boyfriend that aspires to be more than a boyfriend, Dylan McDermott. They’re all brought closer together through Kris Kringle when Perkins hires him for Cole’s; but Perkins, unlike everyone else, doesn’t believe in Santa, and thus dooms herself to a miserable life. Can she be convinced to see the light?
As films go, this version of Miracle on 34th Street is a very cheesy affair that features all the bad things one normally associates with an American film: pretentious and unreal morality, predictability, and some very badly imposed conservative values. It is definitely not a good film, even when taking into account it is primarily aimed at young kids.
However, there is something that takes Miracle on 34th Street further down from being just another bad American film and into being a truly horrendous film of the Goebbels production line. And that is the way faith and the matter of Santa Clause’s existence are discussed, and in particular the way the film insists on Santa Clause’s existence while criminalizing doubt in his existence.
First there are the reasons the film comes up with for the existence of Santa. It basically comes down to a statement that’s repeated by Attenborough’s character: if you don’t have faith, you are doomed to a life of doubt. Naturally, the film provides its handy version for the way a life of doubt is lived through Elizabeth Perkins’ character: a cold blooded, boring and depressing person with no love for her family and no way to relate to fellow human beings. The film goes on to say that you’re either happy with faith or sad and gloomy in doubt. The film, in short, provides a misleading and untrue representation of skeptics in a way not dissimilar to the way Goebbels portrayed Jews as cunning rats. Miracle on 34th street has its own agenda that it likes to push, and if that agenda doesn’t align itself with reality then hey – who gives a shit about reality? We don't need truth, we have faith.
Well, the truth is that there is no Santa Clause. The Santa Clause we know, dressed in red and white uniform and a white beard, is a less than a hundred years old product of Coke’s advertising (hence the choice of colors). No child has ever received a Christmas gift where Mr Clause or any of his elves had anything to do with the gift, and that is an undeniable fact that even the most devoted Christian will not be able to deny. Not to mention that you won't find any non Christian believing in Santa.
The reality is also that there is good living to be made in a life of skepticism and doubt. I know that because I know myself, and I know that because my policy is to not believe in anything that doesn’t have evidence to support it; further, I know to keep on doubting even that which I believe in until I find a better explanation. I’m proud of this attitude, an attitude that's the best recipe of uncovering the truth, and unlike the Perkins character I think I lead quite a happy life. I even have friends whom I like and trust, simply because I know that this is what friends are like and I know that like me they have their ups and downs. Yes, my friends are human beings, and oddly enough I don’t require imaginary friends to allow me to enjoy their friendship.
Worst scene (blooper alert):
The film’s climax, where the trial’s outcome is determined by the writing on a dollar note – “in god we trust” – is indication towards all that is bad in American society. It’s got both the overemphasis on everything to do with money over humanist values, as well as the religious fanaticism that seems to run loose in the USA. Indeed, there can be no better demonstration of the way religion overtook reason in the USA than the history of America’s favorite motto.
And as for taking the words on a dollar note as evidence in a court of law...
Overall: Pass the barf bucket, quickly! 1 out of 5 stars.