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It’s funny what becomes a tradition. In terms of the holiday season and movies related to it, it seems almost anything can be a hit, but it’s surprising how many of them are comedies. In 1994, television star Tim Allen was on top the ratings with his hit show Home Improvement, about a family man who is host of a his own TV show about, well, home improvements. Allen’s abrasive, deadpan yet direct comic tone resonated with audiences because, naturally, there was an underlying charm and honesty to it all that made him appealing. It was only a matter of time before studios got him onto the big screen to capitalize on it, and so it was a Christmas film where he got his cinematic debut, even though he was already doing the voice work for an upcoming little film from Pixar to be released the following year about toys who come to life.
The Santa Clause is not particularly new, plot wise. A mostly well-off man, divorced to a woman who is still close by and tethered to her by a young child, he has to find a way to rebuild a relationship with them to redeem his current wrongly-perceived ways. It’s a pretty standard formula, one that would find big success again a few years later when Jim Carrey did the same thing without the Santa theme in Liar Liar. And like Liar Liar, it did do a few things differently, such as making the ex-wife’s boyfriend rather a nice guy who wasn’t a louse.
Either way, The Santa Clause impossibly became a hit, most assuredly because of its simple story, crude jokes and sarcastic wit. Allen is a fun actor to watch and the premise is admittedly clever, spinning the beloved tale of Santa and the North Pole into something like a contractual agreement. Santa himself is not a permanent job as it were, and to be replaced is to simply be in possession of the suit and the attached business card-sized contract. Such is the case for Scott Calvin (Allen) when the real Santa falls off his roof and dies (in a rather shocking moment for a kid’s film), his corpse stuck in a snow-pile on Calvin’s front stoop.
Calvin is with his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), who witnesses the whole thing and it’s not long before Scott himself as donned the suit and takes over for Santa to ensure the presents are delivered. He remains irascibly skeptical of the whole thing even as he climbs into a sleigh with eight reindeer, who can fly, and is magically able to squeeze down chimneys and pipes and deliver gifts from a bottomless red velvet sack.
When the job is done, they end up at The North Pole, a colorful land of the elves where he is welcomed as the new Santa without a blink. The two discover a huge fantasy land where toys are being built, all over-seen by the head elf named Bernard (David Krumholtz), himself a lot like Calvin in that he’s cranky and too busy to care. Told he’s now the new Santa, Scott remains incredulous to it all, despite overwhelming evidence it is true. He is taken to his large room to spend the night and get some rest.
And it is here where we FREEZE THE FRAME. After Charlie plops into the massive sleigh-like bed, and Calvin slips into his red silk pajamas, monogrammed with SC (get it?), in arrives Judy the Elf (Paige Tamada), a little girl who serves as sort of the host for Santa. She comes bearing hot chocolate and much more.
First, the drink. It’s delicious, and it should be, we find out. It’s taken her 1200 years to perfect the recipe (not too hot, extra chocolate, shaken not stirred). I’ll skip the fact that the first appearances of Santa Claus in his earliest forms started popping up only a little more that 500 years ago but clearly this story is building its own new foundation.The drink joke is cute, and so is the impossibly adorable Judy. Scott then comments that she looks good for her age, and the very adult Judy rebuffs what she thinks is an advance and informs him she’s seeing someone in wrapping. Record scratch. Wait, what?
Obviously a joke that flies over the intended younger audience, this throwaway line is a strange one to be sure, and even in context, feels awkward. It’s meant to establish the age and maturity of Judy, but there are some peculiarities to this, establishing that she is an adult elf, though Bernard himself, who is significantly more developed would suggest she has more growing to do. And why would an elf think Santa is hitting on her? Do all new Santa’s that arrive on their first night take a shot? Questions abound, but I’ll move on. Let’s talk about why Judy is so important, because she really is.
Calvin is literally stuck in a wonderland, a place that is built of pure fantasy. He stopped believing in Santa when he as a child, though is one who strongly promotes imagination for children. He even works as a toy company executive (who ironically has the ‘Do It All For You Dollie’ toy to thank for being so successful). Now, standing in wonderland, he is naturally confounded and wants answers.
In steps Judy. Demurely yet with poise, she comments that she recognizes his distress. She then approaches and explains it’s okay, that most grown ups can’t believe in magic, that it grows out of them. She shrugs slightly, with a touch of sadness as she says so. This is the price we pay.
Clavin admits the place is enchanting, noting the spectacular, such as a polar bear directing traffic (an almost inaudible bear growl pipes in), but he simply can’t accept it, calling it a dream. He literally can’t believe it.
Here, Judy smiles knowingly, seemingly having faced this question many times before from new Santa’s that must come to make a choice. She tells him that he is missing the point, that, “seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing.” Children don’t need to see The North Pole or Santa to know they exist. They just know. It’s a thought and a theme that will effect Calvin for the rest of the film, as it takes him nearly a year to fully accept the idea and then finally, to embrace it.
Judy the Elf remains one of the most iconic and memorable characters and is the center of perhaps the most important moment in this holiday film, her presence brief but so impactful, she has become a welcome part of the season. She reminds us that we were all children once, herself the physical embodiment of that, despite the breadth of knowledge and experience she clearly has. Her kind words are poetic but authentic and, for the story to survive, crucial. She makes it easy to believe.
Before I wrap (see what I did there?) this up, let’s talk about the waitress. She works at Denny’s, the restaurant where Scott brings Charlie for dinner when he (and several other inept father tropes) burn the turkey at home, earlier in the film. Her name is Judy (Jayne Eastwood), to which the movie takes great pains in pointing out, putting her name tag right in Scott’s face and having him overly-exaggerate noticing and speaking it so we the audience gets it.
She is also a host of sorts and she is a character meant to prop up the dream theme that surface once Scott wakes up back in his bed the morning after he becomes Santa. While it’s a padded stretch to make the connection, the important thing about that dinner scene is that nothing that Charlie or Scott want is available. This is key because at this point, Calvin doesn’t believe and he’s emotionally detached from Charlie. It is a physical demonstration of how he can’t meet the needs of his son, and that to do so, he must not only see Charlie for what he is, but believe in him as well, something that takes becoming Santa to do.
The two Judy’s are the catalysts for this transition, and help to guide Calvin onto the right path, where we witness a man evolve from cynicism and bitterness to a man with heart and compassion. This is the real Santa Clause.