Santa Claus: The Movie was supposed to be the holiday hit of 1985. Such was the confidence that father and son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had managed to get finance for the film of somewhere in the region of 40 million dollars; for comparison Back to the Future, which was released in July of the same year, had a budget of less than 20 million.
The film was released November 27th and with heavy advertising it was expected by the end of December it would have trebled its budget in ticket sales. Alas it was not to be and it only just took enough money to cover just over half its budget. So what went wrong?
It certainly wasn’t the casting. David Huddleston looked and acted the perfect Santa and Judy Cornwell as his wife Anya was the mum we’d all loved to have had. Dudley Moore also looked like he was having fun as Patch the elf, bringing energy to every scene he’s in. Then there is John Lithgow as the antagonist corrupt toy maker B.Z. The perfect pantomime villain who dialogue is so free and easy you’d swear he improved every line. In fact it’s the introduction of Lithgow’s character that stops the film feeling too saccharine at times.
The special effects and visuals are, for the time, stunning and bright. The realisation of Santa’s workshop is how every child imagined it would be. The contrast to the dankness of the New York set was well realised and thought out.
The dankness of the New York set might well have been one of the problems. Its dark alleyways and poverty ridden population were more akin to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver then a family Christmas movie. Like its fellow cult Christmas film 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life it dealt with some pretty dark subject matters. While Santa Claus the Movie doesn’t go into much depth it still tackles homelessness, child abandonment, death, corporate corruption and the commercialisation of Christmas. Audiences maybe just weren’t ready to learn lessons during their holiday entertainment.
Taken more seriously back then, the reviews were not good. Everything from the plot, screenplay to the acting and directing were panned. Despite its cult status the film still only holds a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
So how come this holiday flop became a Christmas cult classic. First off we can thank VHS. Due to its poor box office the initial release of the movie on VHS was slightly cheaper than normal. This made it perfect stocking filler for children or a cheap Christmas Eve movie for the family. This trend continued throughout the 1990’s. Children introduced to the movie this way would later do the same with their own via DVD and later streaming platforms.
TV distribution rights were also discounted and Santa Claus the Movie became the early film of Christmas morning. The memory of opening your presents with this movie in the background made it an integral part of Christmas for many. It is still shown today, with British broadcaster ITV seemingly showing everyday in December last year.
The movie has also dated really well. The effects may look tired by todays standards, but the story and issues raised within the film are timeless. Even its movies song It’s Christmas (All Over the World), sung by Sheena Easton written for Freddie Mercury, seems like a lost classic.
The movie has gone on to influence some of the most popular Christmas films and specials of the last two decades. Watch Buddy leaving the North Pole in Elf and compare to Patch’s journey, the desire to modernise is reflected in Arthur Christmas and even Family Guys Road to the North Pole seems to be taking its cues from this film.
I would normally end an article like this trying to persuade you to go and seek out and watch the film. In this case I genuinely feel you’ve all more than likely seen it already.