12/26/06

521 Santa Claus

(1959, Children-Holiday, color)

This is weird theology.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

Santa battles the devil for the souls of Mexican children.

Summary:

The last image you will see before spiralling into madness.(Note: The sequence of events in the film has been edited in the summary below for the sake of clarity. As you read, please try to imagine sharp-edged pieces of plot crashing nonsensically into each other while they all try to happen at the same time.)

Santa Claus lives in a Mexican Villa built on a cloud high above the North Pole. All year long he plays a massive pipe organ like Captain Nemo while his multicultural slave children build toys. It takes at least the first quarter of the film to establish this while he introduces the children to us, nationality by nationality. When the musical introduction finally peters out, Santa heads down to his control room with the chief slave child Pedro to check up on the children of Earth (read: Mexico City). To this end he employs a massive pair of lips, a tentacle with an eyeball on the end, an oscillating fan with an ear attached to it, and a plastic dome that invades children’s dreams. Santa peeps while Pedro takes notes in anticipation of Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile, in the fiery pit of hell, Lucifer dismisses all his mincing, leotard-clad minions save one—a wispy red lad named Pitch. The goateed and rubber-bloomered Pitch is assigned to go to Earth (um, Mexico City) and oppose Santa Claus at every opportunity, turning the children of Earth (again, Mexico City) to evil. Pitch does a subservient little prance around Hell and ascends to begin his campaign of temptation.

Santa loads his sleigh and gathers his necessaries—a bag of magic sleeping powder, a flower that makes him invisible, and an electric key that can unlock any door. He winds up his laughing mechanical reindeer and he’s off to spread joy to the children of the world.

Down on Earth, he visits three sets of children. The first one is a rich kid who doesn’t want any toys; he just wants his parents to hang out with him once and a while. Santa gives him a few words of encouragement, finds his parents in a restaurant, and then badgers them until they go home. The second is a group of miscreants who, aided by the sly old Pitch, have concocted a plan to tie up Santa Claus and make off with his toys. They’re frightened by a bright light in the sky (I guess Santa bombed them or something) and abandon their plan. They run home to find coal in their shoes.

Interspersed in all this is Pitch’s various plans to foil the jolly old elf. He moves a chimney, heats up doorknobs, whispers plans in the ears of naughty children (see above) and finally hides out in Santa’s sleigh and snips a hole in his bag, so that he loses his magic powder and his invisibility flower. Santa wanders into a yard without them, runs into a dog, and is quickly treed when he discovers he can neither disappear nor put the dog to sleep. Pitch runs around waking up the neighborhood, calling the police and the fire department, so that Santa will be caught. He’s stuck there almost until dawn (which is a bad thing, since his mechanical reindeer will turn to dust in sunlight) until Merlin comes over from the next cloud to talk him down.

Santa races the sun to make one last stop at the third child’s house, the amazingly adorable Lupita, whose family can’t afford to give her toys. She has resisted temptation after temptation to steal herself a dolly, including a nightmarish dream sequence where she shouts down gigantic maniacal dollies that lecture her about her inconvenient honesty. Santa stops by to comfort her and leave her a dolly that’s almost as big as she is. He recovers his “Flower To Disappear” (which has conveniently fallen into her yard) and barely makes it home on time.

Introduction:

Commemorating the change of host.Mike and the ‘Bots are just getting warmed up to go caroling when Mike spills hot coffee all over Crow. Crow’s eyes fall out and Tom’s head falls off while everybody screams.

Host Segment One:

Down in Deep 13, Frank has shaved his hair to buy a watch fob for Dr. Forrester. Dr. Forrester gives him a $25 savings bond that doesn’t mature for thirty years. The gift exchange on the Satellite of Love includes a record for Crow, a dreidel for Tom, underwear in a giant candy cane for Gypsy, and a sweater for Mike that says JOIKE (Gypsy started knitting it when Joel was still on the satellite).

Host Segment Two:

Mike and the ‘Bots are the rock band Santa Kläws. They sing a rock anthem with such lyrics as “I am the warrior of Christmas,” and “Hail the new Claus! / Your hair I will rinse!”

Host Segment Three:

In an effort to make a nice Christmas surprise for Mike, the ‘Bots call up the Nelson family in Green Bay, Wisconsin on the Hexfield Viewscreen. Mike thanks them, but they’re not his family, and he’s not from Green Bay. Quoth Mother Nelson, “Well, that’s different.”

Host Segment Four:

Mike and the ‘Bots sing an all-inclusive Christmas carol, pleading that everyone “cut out all the bull / Let’s have a holiday season that’s multicultural.”

Host Segment Five:

In a Christmas miracle, it starts to snow out in space. Mike blows off the Mads to put on his space suit and to play outside. Down in Deep 13, the Mads are too distracted by their honored guest to notice. They fawn over Pitch, who’s hiding out from Santa Claus until after the holidays. Santa barges in, and the battle begins.

Stinger:

The mechanical reindeers’ crazed laughter.

Thoughts:

It just isn't Christmas until the Devil appears.The filmmakers (the same people who made Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy) have taken a liberty or two with the whole Santa Claus mythos. Most obviously, Santa lives on a villa on the cloud instead of the workshop at the North Pole, has slave children instead of elves, uses mechanical photosensitive reindeer instead of the ones with luminous noses, and, of course, the odd friendship with Merlin. Tom Servo describes it as “terminal whimsy” at one point, but I didn’t mind it so much. After all, what is Santa if not whimsical?

What makes the film really weird is its effort to be religious without mentioning religion. I can see what the filmmakers were trying to do (acknowledge the Son of God without making the whole movie about him) but if you make a movie with a clearly Christian devil and neglect to mention God, the viewers will automatically fill that rather large void with whatever’s handy. In this case, Santa seems to be the Supreme Being, at least on Christmas, and takes sole responsibility for the fight against Satan. Certainly the devils seem to focus entirely on the jolly red one, not acknowledging the existence of any other possible opponents in their quest to corrupt the souls of children everywhere. The Son of God is only mentioned once, by Santa, but it’s so oblique that at first you wonder what he’s talking about. Still, since there are three villas on clouds out in space, and two of them belong Santa and Merlin, so perhaps we can assume that the third cloud belongs to God.

There was one point during this film where I laughed until my chest hurt and then found I couldn’t stop to breathe. When and if you see this film, you’ll spot the moment as soon as it happens. The mechanical reindeer cannot be said to laugh, really; it’s more of a grating, laughter-like noise. Something about the inappropriateness of the moment, the hideousness of the noise, and the fact that Santa thinks it’s the greatest thing ever just hits a nerve. It seems to force the listener to drown it out with real laughter of his own in a subconscious effort to preserve his own sanity.

The host segments are decent and, as you might imagine, holiday-themed. My favorite was Mike’s sweater, knitted with half of Joel’s name and half of his own. The “preparing to go caroling” sketch was funny, and the attempt to reach Mike’s family was amusing as well. I liked the two songs, but they weren’t all that memorable. The only real laugh-out-loud moment in the host segments was the very end, when Pitch chats pleasantly with Dr. Forrester and Frank about “engulf[ing] the world in darkness,” and then goes toe-to-toe with Santa. The Christmas-themed host segments in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians were much better than this.

In continuing the comparison of that film with this one, however, the film segments for Santa Claus come out slightly ahead. For all its theological confusion, the movie is light-hearted and the commentary is top-notch. Upon seeing the medal-like star above Santa’s doorway, Tom surmises, “Santa flew twenty-three missions over Vietnam.” While the demonic dancing troupe twirls its way around hell, Mike says, “You’re going to burn, burn, burn those calories off!” When Lupita’s mother makes the sign of the cross at the end, someone says, “In the name of Santa, Merlin, and the elves.” It’s definitely worth watching if you’re looking for some fun holiday entertainment.