I have the impression that narratives in Santa movies are cynical. Intentionally or not, almost all of these movies are premised on the attempt to “demystify” Santa. That is, they simultaneously attempt to justify that Santa’s existence is logical, while also implying that it’s not. These stories generally fall into one of three categories: Santa backstory narratives, Santa operations narratives, and Santa side character narratives.
Santa backstory narratives appear most genuine on the surface, giving heartfelt accounts of invented Santa prehistory. While these stories may be wholesome, the project of a “Santa Origin Story”, as I can sarcastically call it, is ill-considered from the start. It strikes me like a form of appropriation. That is, I think it goes against the spirit of Santa to prescribe him a discrete backstory. Santa the figure emerged from many disparate but cobbled-together legends and figures across the Christian world. It would be fair to say that he arose out of a culture’s collective unconscious, and is therefore irreducible. As a character, he did not come to exist in any traditional sense, and I believe stories about him should reflect that spirit.
My criticism even more so lies with “Santa operations narratives.” These stories try to detail and demystify Santa’s operations in the context of an over-capitalistic (mechanical) and consumerist society. The supernatural properties key to Santa’s character, obligatorily included, are brushed aside as aesthetic accessories that the story needs to work around by explaining how they can logistically and compatibly exist. One imagines that if these stories had no obligations to the source material, then The North Pole, aka Santa’s HeadquartersTM would exist as something between a Limited Liability Corporation and a charity tax write-off. These kinds of stories will show, for example, Santa meeting with his accountant as a joke, “isn’t this relatable” moment. The third act of The Polar Express also comes to mind as an especially keen example.
Altogether, these stories function to justify the presence of Santa’s character to adult minds. Paradoxically, these stories disregard actual logical contradictions, like for example, how the story’s adult characters can disbelieve in Santa despite his blatant existence. It ends up as a trite and on-the-nose tale about why you should believe in something that, by the script’s own implication, obviously exists in the movie and obviously doesn’t exist in real life.
The final category is about Santa side characters, like Rudolf or an elf or some other reindeer and so on. The problem with these stories is also one of mindset: they treat Christmas lore like a franchise with spin-off properties rather than legend.
I have all of these examples of ways that Christmas stories, in my opinion, fail. So.. are there any ways to make an actually good Santa movie? The answer is yes. The key ingredient is earnest sincerity. We know what it’s like to treat legend with respect, because we have seen it done… just in unexpected places. I submit the following proposal: My Neighbor Totoro, but as a Christmas film. Totoro is a huge, huge deal in Japan, beyond what simple gaijin can comprehend. It is practically cultural mythology in itself. Totoro songs are in music books mass-produced for elementary school students. It is more well known than the Beatles, or any Western movie you can think of.
Totoro is a movie about Japanese spirituality and mythology. It contains the old story trope that good-natured children have the “sight;” they alone can see the supernatural creatures, a power adults do not possess. So the mythological creatures in Totoro “belong” to children, much like the position of Santa Clause. However, unlike Santa Clause films, Totoro does not traffic in attempting to justify childhood superstitions to an adult audience. Rather, the film reaffirms that observations of children, as illogical as they are, are fundamentally correct, and accurately represent the world is. By contrast, the way that adults perceive the world, despite being more logical, is not correct within the film. Perhaps in a unique way, Totoro demands this shift in epistemology from the viewers.
So far, the best Christmas films are ones that do not feature Santa Clause or supernatural elements, like Charlie Brown Christmas, which exhibits sincerity from its own combination serendipities. Hopefully someday or somewhere Santa is utilized in such a considered manner.