The Five Best Film Versions of Santa Claus

The Five Best Film Versions of Santa Claus

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.  Thanksgiving is over and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is lit.  That can only mean one thing; Christmas movies are now on almost every single channel.  The Christmas genre is a rich and appealing one. Who doesn’t love to snuggle up to their loved one on a cold December night and watch a bit of cinematic holiday spirit?  For some people, their favorites are films about the holiday season. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation  and A Christmas Story are perfect examples of this.  However, this feature focuses on the myth behind Santa Claus.  This isn’t about people in Santa suits like Billy Bob Thornton in  Bad Santa.  This focuses on the Santa archetype; the actual magical being who flies in his sleigh and gives out presents. Here are the five best cinematic Santas.

Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street is one of the most classic, most quintessential Christmas movies about the legend and the belief in Santa Claus.  Edmund Gwenn portrayed the jolly man in the original 1947 film. Although Richard Attenborough’s version was excellent and is represented at the start of this article, Edmund Gwenn’s version cannot be touched.  It is the classic story of an old man, fittingly named Kris Kringle, who proclaims that he is the real Santa Claus, only to be institutionalized. George Seaton directs the film admirably as well, even though the story is pure cornball nonsense.  However, the warmth, the light-heartedness, and the lovability of Edmund Gwenn’s Santa truly make Miracle on 34th Street magical.

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Tim Allen in The Santa Clause Franchise (1994, 2002, 2006)

Being the voice of Buzz Lightyear may be Tim Allen’s legacy in animation.  Portraying Tim Taylor on Home Improvement will leave a legacy in Television.  However, Tim Allen’s legacy in film will most probably be his role in The Santa Clause trilogy.  This is the only version of Santa on the list that has a bit of a gimmick.  In the first film, Scott Calvin inadvertently kills Santa and unwillingly takes his place.  In the second, his tenure as Santa may end if he doesn’t find a Mrs. Claus. The third film finds him squaring off against Jack Frost.  All hijinks of course, but Allen is so good in the role that he elevates the silliness to pure Christmastime magic.

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Ed Asner in Elf (2003)

Elf may well be the funniest Christmas movie ever made.  Will Ferrell goes all out as the super-sized, hyperactive, Buddy the Elf.  Raised by elf Bob Newhart (brilliant!), Buddy’s size causes problems for the North Pole community.  He soon ventures off to New York City (is there a better setting for Christmas time?) in search of his family.  However, a man that has been raised in the joyful magic of Santa’s realm will NEVER quite fit into modern-day Manhattan. The absurdity could have become too much and Elf could have become just a throwaway, nonsense comedy.  However, Director Jon Favreau was smart enough to cast a screen icon as Santa Claus.  The moment he is on screen, the viewer snaps to attention. Ed Asner is the embodiment of Santa Claus in this film, and with his joyous, iconic presence, Elf is elevated to a modern, Christmas, comedy classic.

Tom Hanks in The Polar Express (2004)

Robert Zemeckis really hit the jackpot with this perennial classic.  The Polar Express is is a beautifully realized, technically dazzling piece of art that it seems to be a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life.   Tom Hanks is all over the film. Portraying the conductor, the hobo, the disbelieving boy, and ultimately the big man in red. The reason Hank’s Santa Claus is on this list is simply through the appeal of Hanks himself.  There is an inherent likability, warmth, and trust that comes from any acting role of Hanks’. Is there another actor alive that would be more likable, warm, or trustworthy than him?

David Huddleston in Santa Claus: the Movie (1985)

Santa Claus the Movie is the absolute purest version of the Santa Claus mythos in all of cinema.  Jeannot Szwarc directed the film right after his 1984 Supergirl.  That makes complete sense because Santa Claus the Movie is essentially a superhero origin story.  It tells the tale of a simple man with the ability to make and deliver toys to village children.  Through happenstance, he is magically imbued with the ability to do so to all of the children of the world.  Sounds like a superhero does it not? Sure, there is a lot of real-world antics about an evil toymaker, brilliantly played by John Lithgow, who enlists a runaway elf (Dudley Moore) for his own personal gain.  However, all of the North Pole stuff is incredible. The music, the costumes, the production design…it all dowses the viewer with giddy, overwhelming excitement for the holiday season.  Not to mention, David Huddleston looks the part more than anyone.

Bonus:  Stan Francis in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The magic of Santa Claus, as shown above in The Polar Express, just translates so well to animation.  Those old Rankin/Bass production, stop-motion TV films of the 60s and 70s were wonderful.  The fat-head design of Santa in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with his bulbous white beard and mustache, is absolutely charming.  Stan Francis’s voice also brings all of the jolliness and gravitas that we all want with our Kris Kringle.

Bonus #2:  James Cosmo in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

This is a bit of a cheat, but it should be mentioned.  At one point in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas suddenly arrives with plot exposition and gifts for the Pevensies.  He is Narnia’s version of Lady Galadriel. It is a bit confusing and odd, but look at that man!  Does he not fit the part?

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