This is the first of two reviews I’ve written especially for this holiday season (don’t say I never got you anything for Christmas!).
I gave my thoughts on 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street in a previous review which you can peruse here before reading my thoughts on the remake. I was rather harsh regarding this remake in my original review, if only because I’ve grown to accept this film’s faults and praise what it does right. Director Les Mayfield was always going to have a difficult time remaking such a beloved classic – a problem that wouldn’t be as detrimental for tomorrow’s remake – and he sticks to what works, for the most part. Maybe I’ve softened during this holiday season, but 1994’s Miracle on 34th Street is only marginally lesser than its 1947 counterpart and enjoyable in its own way.
Like its earlier counterpart the movie tells the story of Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough), St. Nick himself, who ends up working at Cole’s department store as their Santa Claus. As he becomes acclimated to the job he turns his attention towards turning non-believers Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins), one of the Cole’s executives, and her equally skeptical daughter Susan (Mara Wilson) into true believers.
It’s hard finding faults specific to this film as the movie is a near carbon copy of the original, right down to crediting original screenwriter George Seaton as the co-screenwriter of this film’s script (the other co-screenwriter is 1980s legend John Hughes). Outside of substituting the generic Cole’s name in lieu of Macy’s, who refused permission to use their name this time around, the basic plot of Santa working in a department store and changing the hearts and minds of a little girl and her mother remains. Similarly, the problems I had with Seaton’s original film – mainly Maureen O’Hara and John Payne’s storyline acting only to give Susan her wish isn’t interesting – remain here as well.
The extrapolation of everything in this movie is my main sticking point. The original was a slight 96-minutes, sickeningly thin standing next to this movie’s well-fed 114-minutes. Where the original’s narrative was lean and focused, this gets overloaded with subplot upon subplot. The romance between Dorey and her boyfriend/babysitter/lawyer Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott) becomes a way of injecting mushy love sequences, lovingly set against a jazzy saxophone performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” possibly in the belief it’ll keep parents entertained when really everyone, including them, have tuned out. There’s also the Boris and Natasha-esque henchmen working for a rival store, played exclusively in sneers by Jane Leeves and James Remar, trying to trip up Kris and prove he’s a nut. All of this leads to an overblown trial sequence that seems ripped from a Frank Capra story. In fact, the weirdest element of the movie is how much Hughes wants this to be a Capra movie. No one assumes a Jimmy Stewart-esque lawyer named Bryan Bedford is coincidental, right? The trial is where things become overly sentimental and a caricature of a classic film, right down to the austere and oddly colored courtroom that looks like it flirted with something out of Ron Howard’s Grinch remake.
The “more is more” aesthetic even trickles down to little Susan. Before I nitpick, let me say Mara Wilson was the only child star of the 1990s who could inhabit the role the way Natalie Wood did. Wood’s Susan was wise beyond her years because her mother taught her to be. Even though this remake gives backstory for why Dorey is so “bitter” – the typical drunken husband who up and left her, thus she hates men…you know the drill – Susan is remains wizened because of her mother’s influence. It would have been very easy to change the dialogue around and have Susan be utterly disillusioned about Christmas because of her absentee father. Wilson, herself rapidly rising through the ranks towards being the biggest child star of the ’90s, ably vacillates between the mature adult-child who “talks like she’s 64-years-old” and the little girl who can still be shocked at tugging on an old man’s beard. Wilson also boasts intense and genuine relationships opposite Perkins, McDermott, and Attenborough, especially.
However, Susan in the ’47 film simply wanted a house for Christmas; an entryway into the world of domesticity her mother denied her. Here, a house alone isn’t good enough for Susan. No, she wants a house, a father, and a little brother! It’s surprising that Kris doesn’t say, “Slow down, kid. The latter two things need to be worked out between consenting adults!” Susan getting everything she wants out of that trio actually takes the agency away from the parents, making a subplot already necessary for the child to get what she wanted even more so. Furthermore, it reduces Dorey to the role of incubator, less of a character and more a living toy factory for her daughter. This is where the aforementioned “more is more” plot doesn’t work. The adult characters weren’t interesting to begin with, but they’re utterly irrelevant now and it’s a shame as Perkins and McDermott are good, but a bit too Grinch-like for the former and Christmas card for the latter.
But, much like Edmund Gwenn in the original, this is the Santa Claus show. Much like Wilson’s casting, Attenborough was the only choice we had back in 1994. Who else could bring joy to thousands of children around the world better than the grandfather of dinosaurs? (Jurassic Park was released the year prior.) Attenborough is just as warm and accessible as Gwenn was, and the moments where his storyline is expanded do a better job of fleshing out the character. (If only that treatment worked on the rest of the plotlines.) Attenborough’s presence is the one element that transcends the original. Take the famous scene where Gwenn speaks to a young girl in Dutch. It was cute, but a bit wacky for a random Dutch orphan to show up at the local Macy’s. This film turns the child into a deaf girl who can only speak through sign language. The emotion becomes intensified as the mother doesn’t expect Kris to try to communicate with her, partly because of the language barrier, but also to avoid the uncomfortable situation of her being disabled. The look of sadness on the mother’s face matches the sadness from Kris that any other Santa would be content to be a figurehead and creates waves of emotions that are turned to smiles when he starts signing to the little girl and singing “Jingle Bells.” Sure, the Dutch sequence of the original, being a more exclusive specialty, does a lot to convince Susan, but if anything Susan realizes Kris is a kind individual who, like Santa, will do anything to please a child. I’ve included the scene for you to cry over above.
There are certainly cons associated with this remake of Miracle on 34th Street, but I think it captures a different element and provides a different experience when compared to the 1947 original even if the spirit remains the same. Both are equally good, but this one benefits from an equally compelling Santa, one who’s got a bit more authenticity without the theatrics, and a child star who can work the dual nature of the character better. However, the runtime is far too excessive culminating in ridiculous subplot and shenanigans that dampen the simpler story. I watch both at Christmastime and enjoy them equally.
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