The Twelve Flicks of Christmas

A ben’s TEN Holiday Series

Get the Scoop You Won’t Find Anywhere Else on 12 Christmas Movies Old and New
[See complete list of reviews]

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Directed by Les Mayfield
Rated PG
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott

Review by Ben Koch

Conventional Synopsis:

Last year, Jeff reviewed the original 1947 classic version that has become a permanent modern Christmas archetype. Needless to say, it scored well. More than half a century after its original black and white production, it still had the power to captivate a modern–or rather postmodern (or is that post-postmodern?) audience. So why remake it? That’s a question we’ll get to in a bit.

With only minor tweaks, this edition follows the same plot as the original. Dori Walker (Perkins), the tightly wound executive of “Cole’s Department Store” in New York, is forced to replace the drunken Santa she’s hired for the  Thanksgiving Day Parade. She’s compelled either by destiny or necessity to recruit Mr. Kris Kringle as her new Santa, who happened to be the provocation that revealed the previous Santa’s state.

Kringle is an incredibly good Santa. Almost too good. What’s more, he seems to be putting on a schtick that he really IS Santa. This is disturbing to rational Dori, but with all the business he’s bringing in to Cole’s, is it worth digging further? Not to mention Dori’s daughter Susan, who has taken a liking to Kringle and who is beginning to question the staunch skepticism her mother has taught her. As circumstances force a further probe into Kringle’s true identity, a battle between faith and reason must be fought everywhere: in Cole’s, in the courts and in every character’s heart.

Beneath the Surface 

Jeff’s review of the original focused primarily on the theme off faith vs. reason. The tension of that dichotomy holds true for the 1994 version as well, but to make this review fruitful–and not just a rehash of Jeff’s insights–I’d like to reframe this conflict for the more modern psychological age in which it appears as “Intuition vs. Rationality.” How is it that we can really KNOW something, and what does it mean to know something as true?

There are characters in the black and white zone of this question and there are a few in the grey. First, let’s take a look at the two extremes:

  • The Black/Rationality: Ms. Dori Walker is the “Mayor of Rationality Town” here. Her position toward Santa, Christmas or anything hinting at the frivolous is de facto one of scientific materialism–if it can’t be proven empirically and/or if it conflicts with logic it’s a relic of our irrational human past. She’s not a cold mother, but some parents will cringe when she has a logically harsh heart-to-heart with her daughter Susan on why they don’t believe in Santa Claus. Dori’s mantra, and an actual line (paraphrased) from the film: “Truth is the most important thing in the world.” It isn’t until late in the story that we begin to see that this steely, rational facade just might be a defensive construction for a past heartbreak or other trauma.
  • The White/Intuition: Who else, but jolly, logic-defying Kris Kringle could represent our intuitive way of knowing the world? Kris’s open, loving nature wins over everyone. Even semi-cold blooded Dori warms to him as a human being. There are real moments of brightness for Attenborough in this role. When a mother places a deaf child on Kringle’s lap and says, “You don’t have to speak with her, just let her sit there. She’s deaf,” he is so overcome with compassion that we, too, want to take that dive into madness with him, to believe he’s a being who completely embodies giving and generosity. And when he begins to “speak” to that little girl with sign language, with such skill and tenderness, we feel the movie at its barest and most powerful moment.
  • The Grey leaning toward Black: In a way, the characters somewhere between rationality and intuition are the most interesting in the film because they are, of course, the ones most like us. Little Susan Walker has a sharp mind honed and trained to be logical like her mother’s. She’s most comfortable conversing with adults, and has a high degree of self-awareness: “Mother, would it be OK if I had some time to think it over some more before not believing in Santa?” She’s the center of the tension throughout the movie, and the main battleground for the dichotomy we are discussing. On the one hand, she knows in her gut and heart of hearts that there is something special, yes even magical, about Kris Kringle. Yet the rational voice in her head won’t let her take it on faith. So she does what any young child would do: she develops a scientifically testable hypothesis and creates an experiment! She asks Santa for such an outrageous set of Christmas gifts that only a truly magical being could fulfill it. In essence, she’s using rationality to confirm or deny an intuition.
  • Grey leaning toward White: Another character who has always intrigued me is Brian Bedford, the lawyer boyfriend to Dori. He’s the romantic of the film and is immediately open to Kris Kringle and his notions of Santa hood. He has the empathy, evidently, to see through Dori’s shell and is in love with her. He’s marvelous with Susan. He’s easygoing, handsome and flexible. And yet he’s an astute New York lawyer. He is Kris Kringle’s primary champion and is the one, the only one, who dig’s Kringle from the depths of his darkest moment in the film. He carries on throughout the movie without a flinch as if he completely and wholeheartedly believes in Santa. He virtually puts his career on the line to defend him in state court. But are we to believe that a high-powered thirty-something lawyer REALLY believes in Santa? Or is his motivation more of a “of course Santa is real!” <wink wink>? I, at least, have never had that question completely resolved. And I guess that’s why he’s in the grey category.

I’m not going to say this movie resolves the dichotomy, but the lines certainly seem to dissolve by the end of the film. The question is the journey you, the viewer, take through the narrative. Are you comfortable in that foggy, unpredictable grey space, or do the big questions force you to one of the extremes?

So was there a good reason to remake this film? I don’t know that a modern version added much to the story either spiritually or philosophically. At best, it might attract those who have a phobia for black and white films, but if I have 2 hours on Christmas Eve, I’ll be sticking with the original.

Ratings

Cocoa Factor = 7 out of 10
How good is this one for cozying up with a fire burning, a hot beverage of your choice, and your new Snuggy?

Magicality = 8 out of 10
How well does this one transport you back to the timeless wonderment beyond rationality when Christmas enveloped you in magic? AKA “The Santa Clause factor.”

A Date with Grandma and Aunt Bernice = 10 out of 10
How appropriate/awkward is this one to watch with relatives of all ages? Will hot kissing scenes or male rear nudity spoil the mood?

Tiny Tim’s Big Truths = 8 out of 10
From the mouths of babes come life’s most profound lessons. At the heart of this flick, how authentic, heartfelt and lasting is the message? Does it transcend Xmas clichés and ring bells?

Overall = 8 out of 10

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About bensten

Teacher, writer, blogger and spiritual practitioner. Managing editor of bensten.wordpress.com.

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