This curiously depressing remake of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET epitomizes contemporary Hollywood's inability to bring style and originality to the kind of family comedies it once produced with aplomb. This story of a cynical little girl who meets the real Santa Claus and becomes a true
believer is guaranteed to cast a pall over the holiday season.
In present-day Manhattan, Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins), the Special Projects Manager at Coles Department Store, hires a man named Kriss Kringle (Richard Attenborough) to play Santa in Coles's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. Kriss plays Santa so well in the parade that he's hired by the store
to entertain the children during the Christmas season. Although the customers love Kriss, Dorey dismisses such sentiment, and insists that her young daughter, Susan (Mara Wilson), be taught the truth about Santa and other fairy tales. But Susan slowly starts to believe in Kriss anyway, encouraged
by their next-door neighbor, Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott), an idealistic lawyer. Susan tries to play matchmaker between Bryan and her mother, but Dorey is fearful of commitment and cynical about Bryan's faith in the elderly man who claims to be Santa.
Meanwhile, a rival store, Shoppers Express, panics at the commercial success Kriss has brought to Coles, and attempts to frame him in an assault on of one their employees. When Kriss is arrested, the prosecutor, Ed Collins (J.T. Walsh), threatens to have him committed, because Kriss contends he
is the real Santa Claus. Bryan, however, comes to Kriss's rescue and defends him in court, proving that, legally at least, Kriss is the real Santa Claus. Coles, meanwhile, makes an elaborate public relations effort to rally support for Kriss, just as Dorey finally begins to believe in him. During
the trial, the prosecution builds a solid case against Kriss, but Susan convinces the judge (Robert Prosky) to rule that if the US Government believes in God--as its currency certifies--then it should believe in Santa Claus, too. Bryan wins the case and, on Christmas Eve, convinces Dorey to marry
him. By the end of Christmas Day, Susan has found the three gifts she dreamed for--a new father in Bryan, a house in the country, and a baby brother on the way.
During MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET's theatrical run, 20th Century Fox promoted their film product with a money-back guarantee to dissatisfied customers. While the studio later trumpeted the fact that only a small number of patrons took advantage of the refund offer, they conveniently failed to
mention that relatively few people actually saw the film in the theaters (it was almost completely overshadowed by Disney's concurrent November release, THE SANTA CLAUSE). In any case, there are so many things wrong with this remake of George Seaton's 1947 classic, it would have been hard for
disgruntled viewers to know where to start complaining. Of course, the original MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET was no masterpiece, but it was clever and efficient storytelling with just the right mixture of whimsy and sentiment. This new version is not really ineptly made, but it's consistently heavy
going, shifting the tone from light parable to oppressive sermon (even the 1973 TV remake was more engaging).
MIRACLE represents the Road Most Traveled for producer John Hughes, whose past end-of-year holiday productions have also mixed Christian enlightenment with lowbrow comedy (e.g. PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES, 1987, the HOME ALONE sagas, 1990, 1992). The crisis of contemporary belief systems
becomes an issue within MIRACLE's story, and Dorey's conversion from cynic to believer is so laden with dark lighting and somber music (even her epiphany is shot in slow-motion), that it looks as if Werner Herzog stepped in on occasion for director Les Mayfield.
Had Herzog actually stepped in, this MIRACLE might have been equally ponderous but also wry and reflective. Bringing this version quickly down to earth, however, are all the worst elements of big Hollywood film-making circa 1994, including shameless product placements (from 7-Up to NYNEX) and
shots of a Manhattan both so spotlessly clean and so completely devoid of minority citizens that Woody Allen's filmic fantasies of New York City look like documentaries by comparison. (The less said the better about the cast trying to fill the stockings--er, shoes--of Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara,
Edmund Gwenn, et al.)
Ironically, this MIRACLE missed the one commercial "plug" that would have improved the picture: the department store in the original film, Macy's, refused to be involved with the new MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET for fear of bringing attention to their recent bankruptcy woes. Moral: you know a movie is
in trouble when it can't even get its promotions right.
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