Most holiday films don’t hinge their plots on involuntary manslaughter, but most holiday films aren’t as inadvertently grim as The Santa Clause. Instead of a heart-warming tale of what it would be like if your father was Santa, this film presents a world where Santa is a role much like Death. If you kill him, you must take his place in the world, and you lose yourself in the process.
Pretty heavy stuff for a Tim Allen vehicle from 1994, but there it is. In The Santa Clause, he plays a typical mid-nineties movie sad bad dad, incapable of relating to his kid and at odds with his ex-wife’s (Wendy Crewson) new husband. Scott Calvin (note the initials) is an advertising executive for a successful toy company, but seems dead inside. The new husband, Neal (Judge Reinhold), is a psychiatrist, and thus worthy of our scorn. The son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd), wants his dad to pay more attention to him. Instead, he gets Denny’s for a Christmas dinner.
This all sounds wholesome enough–nothing much seems to happen in the all white fake Illinois town–right up until Charlie alerts his dad that there’s “such a clatter” on the roof. The reindeer must be there. Calvin comes to the more reasonable conclusions that there’s a home intruder on his roof. Instead of calling the police, he gets a ladder and startles the hell out of the jolly old elf on his roof. He falls, dying in a snowbank. The Santa winks before his body disappears into thin air, perhaps to ease Calvin’s guilt. But my theory is that he’s signaling his relief at being freed from his magical indentured servitude, finally allowed the sweet embrace of death after toiling endlessly under the rule of elves.
Charlie doesn’t seem too phased about his father killing Santa, making him an excellent creepy horror movie child. After being convinced by his child to don a dead man’s gay apparel, Calvin spends the night playing Santa Claus, unaware of the future horrors that await. He even convinces himself that being pressed into work by a bunch of child-like elves was a dream.
His nightmare, however, is just beginning. Calvin starts to change. He craves sweets. He puts on 45 pounds in a matter of two weeks, eating desserts and trying to jog off the weight. While being fat, of course, isn’t horrific, the body horror creeps in because he’s completely lost control of his own body. His beard grows in white and impenetrable, regrowing instantly after he shaves it. His body is just a vessel for the spirit of Christmas to reside in, subsuming his tastes and preferences to adhere to the aesthetic of a Coca Cola ad from the 1930s.
Why does the Santa Clause dictate that Santa must be Santa year round? If the suit has the magic to create chimney portals to allow entrance into homes without chimneys, surely it could be imbued with a little glamor spell. Certainly he doesn’t need a full beard for more than one month of the year. There’s no real in-text attempt to answer these questions
But The Santa Clause is a morality play in the way slasher films are; Scott Calvin must be punished for his sins of inattention, of capitalistic greed, and of course, murdering Santa. The movie treats his newly fat body as grotesque, his new appetite off-putting for his co-workers as he eats his way through multiple desserts. He dresses in sweats and looks ill-kempt, a Santa that mothers would warn their children away from.
The change in his appearance is enough to warrant an intervention, one that the shifty psychiatrist Neal suggests is psychiatric care and a loss of visitation rights to his Christmas-obsessed child. His ex-wife believes it’s an act to trick Charlie into liking him. Scott Calvin is gaslit at every turn, except for his son. Charlie, for his part, clings tightly to his memories of flying around the world in a sled pulled by reindeer. He becomes as obsessed with Christmas as Christmas appears to be obsessed with his father; he plays Santa in his free time and brings Scott to take-your-parent-to-work day to introduce him as Santa Claus.
While Neal isn’t presented as a villain for raising some legitimate concerns about Calvin’s ability to parent, watching him insist over and over that Calvin’s experiences aren’t real is more alarming than a funny comedy. The secondary horror is knowing that, were this not a Christmas movie, Neal would be right: physically transforming into Santa Claus is a bad midlife crisis at best, a terrible decision for a father to make.
Of course, while Neal is a good parent in the real world, in The Santa Clause he’s in the wrong; Scott Calvin truly is Santa Claus. But what about Scott Calvin has changed, precisely? He now loves dessert. He’s fat. He has a job that seems significantly more dangerous than being an ad exec, one that you can only be retired from. There’s no real catharsis for him, however, nothing that truly pushes him to change. He’s made miserable by the changes in his body and the custody agreement, but that doesn’t motivate him to be kinder or a better father. Sure, he goes to a soccer game, but it’s a pretty paltry change-of-heart. He sort of just moves along, begrudgingly accepting his new task as judge of children far and wide.
And who’s in control of this vicious magic? My guess is the elves, who are also creepy horror children, hundreds of years old, but stuck in the body of kids. David Krumholtz plays Numb3rs the Elf, who seems entirely unphased by the death of the earlier Santa. There’s no mourning for their boss at all, which leads me to believe the elves are the true architects of Christmas eve. They simply find a host body to do their bidding among the world, and ensnare him.
The one saving grace is that everyone seems to prefer Tim Allen as Santa Claus than they did before his life was ripped away from him, so his family is at least spared the horror of realizing that Scott Calvin experienced no real epiphany of kindness or giving. That the suit is who’s talking, who’s laughing with little Charlie on the sleigh. The uncontrolled changes in his body and behavior cost him his job, leaving him free to cut and run on his life in the city. Sure, he’ll take Charlie up to the North Pole. But who knows how long it’ll take before the elves need another sacrifice and Charlie has to join the string of people tricked into Santa-ing for the rest of his life? (About eight years until the sequel).
Rather than a fun, mindless story for kids about how even a grumpy dad’s heart can be warmed by the spirit of Christmas, The Santa Clause is a story about a man losing his entire life to that same spirit. His body, his face, his desires, none of these are his alone once he dons that suit. It doesn’t sound very merry to me.