Okay, so right off the bat, using The Santa Clause as an example of why Christmas movies are inherently terrifying is cheating a little, because c’mon: Tim Allen, right? A Trump worshipping, coke-trafficking snitch whose bizarre growls and groans in the Home Improvement era of his career suggest either demonic possession or genuine mental illness. His hardcore conservative views clash constantly with his Disneyfied, Buzz Lightyear persona, and his eyes betray a deep hatred for anyone with an even mildly progressive mindset.
A natural fit to play Santa, obviously.
But let’s put that on the back burner for now, because there’s plenty unpack here without delving into a drawn out “art vs artist” debate (and I use ‘art’ very generously). For those of you who’re lucky enough to have somehow made it to 2021 without seeing this bizarre Kafkaesque fever dream, The Santa Clause is a classic Christmas tale about a man who murders Santa and is slowly consumed by the jolly saint’s persona due to a legally binding contract that he is entered into against his will.
Fun for the whole family!
To be slightly less glib/reductive/smartass, the movie follows Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin, a divorced dad who has his son Charlie over for Christmas Eve. His ex-wife and her new husband are psychiatrists, and think that Charlie, who can’t be any older than, like, six, is too old to believe in Santa anymore, and should be told the truth as soon as possible. They are the villains of this movie, more or less, for no other reason than to seemingly harp onto the “bitch of an ex-wife vs fun dad” archetype that seemed so common in the 90s, a la Mrs. Doubtfire.
After ruining dinner and taking Charlie to spend Christmas Eve at a Denny’s (because he’s a fantastic father), the pair return home and go to bed, only to be awoken by a strange noise on the roof. As you can probably guess, it’s Santa Claus himself, who Scott startles and causes to fall off the roof, presumably breaking his neck, and killing him. Santa’s corpse then disappears like a goddamn Force ghost, leaving behind only his suit and a mysterious (and, honestly, pretty tastefully-designed) business card.
This is only the first ten minutes of the movie, but let’s stop here for a moment. First of all, bold choice to have the inciting incident of your family Christmas movie be manslaughter. That’s dark even by my own decidedly morbid standards. Nothing says “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men” like negligent homicide, am I right? Imagine watching that with your young children! “You see that kids? If you don’t shut up and go to sleep on Christmas Eve, you could kill Santa? Do you want that? Huh?”
And murder aside, shouldn’t Santa be, I don’t know, a little more durable? Like, you’d think a magical being with the ability to essentially travel at lightspeed and who can ooze his body through tiny gaps like an octopus could handle a two-story drop into a snowbank. I have a friend who drunkenly fell from a roof while chasing a cat, and she barely sustained anything more than a bruised ego. If she could escape virtually unscathed, then I have to imagine that a holiday deity should be just fine.
But I digress.
Because Scott and Charlie are both stone-cold killers, they barely even flinch as the magical elf-man vanishes before their eyes. Scott examines the card, which states, in loose terms, that whoever kills Santa must now become Santa. Father Christmas apparently works by the same rules as Davy Jones from The Pirates of the Caribbean, because as soon as Scott dons the red coat that just seconds ago belonged to a dead man (so we can add robbery to the list of crimes), he is immediately granted Santa’s control over the sleigh and reindeer.
After being dragged all over kingdom come, haphazardly committing B&E while delivering presents, Scott/proto-Santa is then essentially kidnapped, along with his young child, by a race of immortal children. They’re whisked away to the North Pole, the apparent land of elves, where the rules of this curse/work-for-hire contract are explained by a particularly passive-aggressive elf named – of all things – Bernard.
In a nutshell, Scott is now legally obliged to pick up where dead Santa left off, and resume his operations. According to Bernard the manic depressive elf, by putting on Santa’s coat, Scott entered into a valid and binding legal contract, and has no way out of this.
Let’s pause again for a second to consider the mind-bogglingly terrifying ramifications of this, shall we? Firstly, let’s address the obvious elephant in the room, one that nearly every Christmas movie will stumble onto at one point or another: Santa is real, yet none of the parents of planet Earth seem to be aware of this. Somehow, every Christmas, children all over the world are waking up to dozens of gifts under their trees, and yet no adult finds this worrisome? Does every mom just think the dad did the shopping and vice versa? Do no couples ever discuss finances with each other in this bizarre, fiscally irresponsible universe? What about single parents? Who do they think is leaving all those gifts?
I suppose the assumption here, of course, is that magic is the answer. Just, you know, general Christmas magic. Handwaved, ‘please don’t asked too many questions’, that sort of thing. But I want to know what kind of magic. Because the only thing that I can think of is that Santa is somehow magically making every parent in the world think that they are the ones that bought all those gifts. Either that, or is just making it so that the parents simply don’t question it.
Regardless, one way or another, Santa is screwing with people’s minds, and that is not okay.
But putting the general idea of Santa aside, it’s the legal specifics of this movie that are even more disturbing. Simply putting on a coat enters a person into a legally-binding contract, in perpetuity? There’s no way that’s enforceable. Scott’s blasé acceptance of this ridiculous predatory bureaucracy is honestly the most unrealistic part of this movie, which is saying a lot. At no point does he even consider consulting his lawyer. An hour in civil court would have cleared this whole thing up, and Scott Calvin would have been free to continue burning turkeys and bringing much-needed product-placement money to Denny’s.
Well, actually, he probably still would’ve gone to jail for manslaughter. I suppose he may have been able to get off on self-defense, as Santa was technically breaking into his house, but we don’t know what state the film takes place in, and are therefore unaware of if the Castle Doctrine applies. And we’ll never know, because Scott is an idiot who just rolls over for legalese like with the casual apathy of someone speeding through an iTunes user agreement.
No, instead of even trying to fight it, he basically just shrugs his shoulders and accepts that he’s got no choice but to be Santa Claus now. Like you do.
It’s at this point in the film where things take a turn for the David Cronenberg, as Scott begins a shocking metamorphosis that would put even Jeff Goldblum in The Fly to shame. Yes, Scott begins to physically transform into Santa Claus. Fat gut, white hair, long beard, the works. Over the course of a full calendar year, an innocent, unassuming man has his body literally hijacked by the Christmas spirit, forcing him against his will to morph into something no longer fully human.
Mechanically, I’m absolutely fascinated by this. What kind of transformation is Scott undergoing? I mean, I know the explanation is ‘magic,’ but there’s no point in doing this if I just accept things as face value, is there smart guy? And while we’re told that certain things within the universe of the film are magic, there’s also a fair amount of advanced technology involved as well. The North Pole is super well equipped, with radar and long-distance transmission equipment that would make the US military shake in their collective boots if they knew about it, as well as a state-of-the-art security system keeping them hidden from the world.
Clearly, these elves are on an entirely different playing field scientifically speaking, so who’s to say that they didn’t genetically tamper with Scott somehow? Altering his DNA so that he better matches the physical template of Santa Clause? Real mad-scientist type stuff.
Personally, I have a different theory: None of this began until Scott put on Santa’s coat. And clothes play a huge role in the film, with Scott waking up in all sorts of strange, festive clothing throughout its runtime. What if the clothes really do make the man? What if Santa is basically Venom, his red-and-white uniform a symbiotic organism that bonds with a host and allows them to transform into a more powerful hybrid of the two beings? Sounds crazy, right? Well so is a Christmas curse phrased as a corporate non-compete agreement, so from this point forward I’m going to refer to Scott as Venom-Claus.
While all this freaky body horror is going on, Venom-Claus’s ex and her husband are pretty much convinced that he’s lost his freaking mind. And understandably so: From their perspective, their child has been ranting like a lunatic for several months about how he went to the North Pole, met a bunch of Elves, and that Venom-Claus (on second thought, let’s just say ‘VC’ for short and save time, shall we?) is now the active duty Saint Nick for the world. Like any reasonable people would, they naturally assume that Scott has had some kind of psychotic breakdown, and is dragging their son along in his delusions of jelly-belly grandeur. Obviously, they try and limit contact between the two.
Bear in mind, the whole time this is happening, the movie is still painting the mom and stepdad like they’re the unreasonable ones. Again, they’re pretty much the villains in The Santa Clause, if it can be said to have any. Do you realize how stupid that is? The only two sane people in this entire movie, and it wants us to hate them because they’re kind of dull and responsible.
I almost kind of love it.
What makes matters worse is that during a particularly tense moment of “We’re no longer allowing you parental rights to our son because you need to be heavily medicated” drama, Bernard the dickhead elf shows up randomly and kidnaps the pair (which seems to be a reoccurring theme here) and absconds with them back to the North Pole.
Because, once again, VC’s ex is a rational human being, she thinks her lunatic ex-husband has now stolen her son, because they mysteriously vanished right as she revealed that she had the courts revoke his visitation rights. So she calls the police, and her particular B-plot now essentially becomes an episode of America’s Most Wanted.
Meanwhile, VC and Charlie are having a grand ol’ time, delivering presents and doing typical Santa-ish things. Eating cookies, flying the sleigh, racking up an impressive number of felony trespassing charges. Standard stuff, really. Eventually, they reach the home of VC’s ex, where the police are inexplicably waiting and arrest Santa Claus.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Surely, a magical being who can visit every child in a single night and contort his body to fit through narrow openings would have no trouble evading ordinary policemen, right?
Well, no, actually. He gets taken in with ridiculous ease.
And this is where the film suddenly decides to openly depict an act of war on US soil. Well, another one, that is. Besides, you know, the repeated kidnappings and indentured servitude. It turns out the elves have themselves a task force. Think Green Berets, only shorter and with pointier ears. This elite task force breaks into the police station and frees VC from the clutches of the American aggress – I mean, the police. VC confronts his ex and convinces her that he’s Santa, who in response, burns the court documents revoking his parental rights. Oh, and he also reveals himself to the police. He then takes his son off into the night to continue Santa-ing for years to come, Charlie riding shotgun like the Robin to his Batman.
There’s… man, just… a lot to unpack there.
Like, I know we’re in a very post- ‘trust the police’ world now, for very good reason, but just… you know, good on them for immediately arresting the crazy man who they had every right to believe had abducted a child. Like, no hesitation. Handcuffs, on sight.
But the biggest thing of note here is the fact that the North Pole apparently has a Black Ops team? One that goes on covert missions to sovereign nations, infiltrates their borders, and extracts political targets? This paints a frankly terrifying picture of elf society and the political structure of Santa’s workshop. Instead of being a whimsical place of toys and candy, it’s a harsh, cynical pseudo-fascist system that has eyes everywhere and access to every single home on the planet, so long as they have children. They’re the most terrifying surveillance state in the world, one that keeps tally of your moral failings and that can conscript you at any moment to join their war on naughtiness.
North Pole? More like North Korea, am I right?
Okay, I’m sorry about that one.
I’ll behave, I promise.
…anyway, Scott/Santa/Venom-Claus has now revealed himself, not only to his family, but to law enforcement. Surely, there’s got to be some consequences, right? I know there’s two sequels to this movie, and neither of them deal with any of this. It’s infuriating. The Santa Clause 2 should have been a political thriller about the US Government’s response to a foreign entity embarking on covert military operations on US soil! Instead, it’s about him being legally required by the laws of Santa-Kind to take a wife.
Which, now that I think about it, is problematic in its own right. I wonder if the potential Mrs. Clause also gets a symbiote, one that turns her into a grey-haired old lady with glasses? Can you imagine? Some attractive young woman who, for whatever reason, agrees to date this lunatic who thinks he’s Santa and then suddenly wakes up from a no doubt mortifying one-night stand to find herself transformed into a grandma?
…actually, that sounds amazing. Maybe I will watch The Santa Clause 2 after all…
But back to the subject at hand: I’ve lived in America my entire life, and I can tell you one thing: We’re petty as hell. If the public got wind that a secretive, presumably communist regime abducted American citizens without due process, not to mention forcing them to act as their own operative, I have no doubt that we’d be bombing the polar ice caps in a matter of weeks. We’d have a full-scale invasion in no time, followed swiftly by Seal Team 6 sneaking into Santa’s workshop in the dead of night to pull a Zero Dark Thirty on his holly-jolly ass.
The newspapers in January would read “Oil Found on North Pole.”
If anything, this gives even less legitimacy to the legal standing of the titular “clause,” as Scott himself shouldn’t be under the sovereign authority of the North Pole’s government. In fact, the US would have pretty legitimate grounds to declare war on the North Pole for all its shady Christmas shenanigans in this film alone, not to mention all the previous hundreds of years they’d been at it. Santa Prime, or whoever the original was, along with all his elves, should be tried at the Hague.
And another thing: Yes, I get the symbolic gesture of burning the court documents. But, like, those are just copies, right? The state still has the agreement filed in their system. Scott is still legally prohibited from seeing his son. His ex would have to go file an annulment to the restriction, and I don’t know much about custody agreements, but I imagine Scott would have to show up himself, right? So, technically, he and his son riding off into the sunset on Santa’s sleigh is just another in a long line of felonies committed in the ninety-seven minutes this dystopian nightmare goes on for.
But that’s where the movie leaves us: A happy(?) ending where our mutant Santa creature spits in the face of the United States legal system and proves his ex-wife wrong. It really is a white man’s dream Christmas. No wonder Tim Allen did three of these.
I’ve never seen the sequels to this movie. I know the second one, again, has to do with VC having to get married if he wants to continue defying international border restrictions, and the third I think has him facing a Martin Short as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze from Batman and Robin, ice-puns and all. I have to imagine that they likely don’t busy themselves with the intricacies of legal jurisdiction or extradition between foreign entities. Nor do they, I suspect, delve into the sheer terror of having one’s body hijacked by what’s essentially just a seasonal Coca-Cola mascot.
But they absolutely should.
If you’ve never seen The Santa Clause, please don’t let this somehow convince you that it’s worth your time. I assure you, it’s not. It’s a garbage movie full of mostly garbage people.
However, it’s juuust disturbing enough to warrant a snarky takedown on an irrelevant pop-culture blog, so here I am!
Join me some indiscriminate time later this month for another round of ruining your favorite holiday classics! Next up: Jack Frost, a movie that stars Michael Keaton as a eldritch horror that will haunt your dreams and make you hate snowmen for the rest of your life.