Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Synopsis: In this modern update of the beloved 1947 classic, six-year-old Susan has doubts bout childhood’s most enduring miracle – Santa Claus. But after meeting a special department store Santa who’s convinced he’s the real thing. Susan is given the most precious gift of all – something to believe in. Staring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott and Mara Wilson as Susan, this uplifting and joyous film will make believers out of the entire family!

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Miracle on 34th Street (1994) 6.95

eyelights: Richard Attenborough. J.T. Walsh.
eyesores: the overall caliber of the performances. its lack of subtlety. its lack of magic.

“I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor. You know, I’m a symbol.”

1947’s ‘Miracle on 34th Street‘ is an enduring classic; it’s inarguably one of the best Holiday-themed motion pictures ever made. Despite its slightly syrupy quality, it’s imbued with all that is the Christmas spirit; it’s a genuine feel-good picture. It was not only a massive box office hit, but it’s critically acclaimed and an award-winner.

Not bad for a movie about a senior who claims to be Santa Claus.

The real Santa Claus.

As with every money-making hit, it’s extremely tempting to revisit such success – if not with a sequel then with a remake. For good or bad, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ doesn’t lend well to sequels. What would they do with it next? Find an old woman who claims to be Mrs. Claus? Maybe get her to meet Kris Kringle and make romantic comedy of it?

‘When Santa Met Mrs. Claus’?

(Hey, it might work!)

So remake it is. And ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ has been revisited no less than four times in the decades since: three times as TV adaptations (in 1955, 1959 and 1973) and once, in 1994, as a theatrical motion picture. It has also been staged as a radio play, a theatre play and even, in 1963, as a Broadway musical. It’s a seemingly timeless story.

The 1994 motion picture updates the material but is rooted in its core events: an old man who looks sufficiently like Santa Claus is hired as a last-minute replacement for Cole’s Santa Claus parade. A huge hit, he’s then hired to work in their store. But the Director soon realizes that the man not only looks like Santa, he claims to be him.

Calling himself Kris Kringle, he causes a bit of a commotion when he casually directs parents to other stores that have the toys Cole’s don’t or for better deals. The struggling store’s apparent selflessness impresses shoppers: sales soar, causing its direct competitor, Shoppers Express, to scramble to compensate. And to try to sabotage Kris.

Soon Kris is set-up in an embarrassing confrontation that lands him in jail – and possibly in a mental institution. It’s up to Cole’s Special Events Director to pull a few strings to try to help Kris out of this situation – even though she’s concerned about his well-being and doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Still, slowly, she’s starting to reconsider.

She, and many others.

What makes the original so enjoyable is that it’s a truly good-natured and warm motion picture; one that can make most cynics and misanthropes thaw, if not melt. It’s also backed by sharp, convincing performances – even though the material itself can be a bit precious at times (“I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe.“, it tells us).

This new iteration, which was adapted and co-produced by John Hughes, means well, but it finds the popular filmmaker with declining powers. From the moment that he got a huge hit with ‘Home Alone‘, he started to focus on kids’ fare – and his flair for such material clearly wasn’t as strong as it was with teenagers as his target audience.

Here we find a plastic ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ – not just artificial, but also a bit stiff. This is largely due to the performances, which find Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott sleepwalking through the picture (as Dorey and Bryan) and Mara Wilson (as Susan) doing that Hollywood child actor thing: being cutesy, but completely unnaturalesque.

She’s no Natalie Wood, that’s for sure.

Thankfully, Richard Attenborough makes for a pretty good Kris Kringle; he plays the part with conviction – though he’s not nearly as endearing as Edmund Gwenn was (and his grotesque teeth give him a slightly creepy allure). And then there’s J.T. Walsh who’s fairly solid as Ed Collins, the prosecutor trying to get Kris committed at the end.

Sadly, they don’t have enough combined screentime to compensate for the others.

The material doesn’t help, of course. I understand the need to update the script for modern times, but there’s a mild level of crassness and cynicism that wasn’t there in the original. There’s even a wholly unnecessary touch of slapstick which made the picture feel corny (no doubt that Hughes was catering to fans of ‘Home Alone’).

Still, the picture was enjoyable up until the third act, during the courtroom scene. This simple-minded sequence also tripped up the original, but this one’s not as enjoyable – largely because it’s less cute, taking itself more seriously yet failing to make strong arguments. It also finds the judge declaring Kris Kringle to be Santa Claus.

(…even though that wasn’t the purpose of the court hearing.)

Then there’s the ending, in which Kris gives Susan all that she wanted, which comes together so quickly, so easily, with such a lack of subtlety that it completely defies credulity. Sure, Kris can buy them a house if he’s rich (if!), but he can’t make the couple fall in love and marry overnight, or even get Susan’s mom pregnant. It’s complete rubbish.

And so, even though I sort of enjoyed parts of the first 2/3 of this nearly-two hour film, I simply can’t bear the thought of watching the 1994 remake of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ again. It’s not bad, but it’s not really a terrific motion picture – it would be forgettable even if the original wasn’t so heartwarming, funny and thought-provoking.

And that’s why I’m giving it a rare 6.95 rating. It’s not really as bad as a 6.75, but, man, I simply cannot in good conscience give it a 7.0 that it does not deserve. Remakes aren’t always a travesty, and this one isn’t, but it’s utterly redundant. If you’re going to watch this tale unfold, you’re much better off seeing the eternal classic from 1947.

I wanted to believe. But this one’s just silly.

Note bene: Fans of the original will note that the new picture isn’t set at Macy’s and its rival isn’t Gimbles. That’s simply because Macy’s refused to be associated with the remake and Gimbles closed down in 1987. Thus, the filmmakers invented two fictitious department store chains for the film’s purposes. One can’t fault them for that.

Date of viewing: December 15, 2017

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