This Christmas, Mark Anthony Ayling remembers holiday blockbuster flop Santa Claus: The Movie from 1985, the year he really came to town…
Following the box-office failure of Supergirl in 1984, film producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind turned their attentions to Christmas and what must have seemed a sure-fire winner in Santa Claus: The Movie.
Mimicking the narrative template laid down by Superman (1978), screenwriters David and Leslie Newman structured a film of two halves. The first recounted Santa’s origin and the wonder of Christmas through the ages. The second spotlighted under-appreciated workshop elf Patch, who leaves Santa’s grotto in disgrace after attempts to update the toy-making production-line falter. Patch joins forces with unscrupulous toy-mogul B.Z. in New York. At this point, the film changes from sweet-natured Christmas extravaganza into an anti-capitalist tirade against yuletide exploitation.
Supergirl helmer Jeannot Szwarc was hired to direct after John Carpenter and a host of other directors bowed out. The film, which cost between 30 and 50 million USD, also made use of legendary composer Henry Mancini and Oscar nominee Arthur Ibbetson, on lensing duties.
The Big Lebowski’s David Huddleston as Father Christmas was likably squashy in the film’s titular role, despite being shunted to make way for Dudley Moore’s Patch. Moore, as the wayward elf with dangerous commercial aspirations, floundered in a role which failed to capitalise on his naturally sharp wit. Thankfully, John Lithgow, as pantomime villain B.Z. made good on the Grinch-like looks that won him the part, ensuring the film contained an overwrought boo-hiss antagonist worthy of the audience’s wrath.
Often cited as a contender for worst Christmas movie ever, Santa Claus, released in November 1985 in the US, stuttered at the box office, failing to connect with cinemagoers or critics who roundly dismissed it. It recouped half its budget making it a sizeable flop for the Salkinds, ensuring they would never make a fantasy film again.
Over the years, however, it has proved strangely durable, especially in the UK, probably due to repeat showings during the festive TV period. Whilst it rarely makes it onto winter-wonderland best-of lists and isn’t likely to undergo critical reappraisal anytime soon, it continues to play well with cynicism-free youngsters won over by its charitable, feel-good intent and old-school charms.