If you watched stop-motion Christmas movies as a kid, I’m sure you have a favorite. Maybe it’s The Year Without A Santa Claus, or maybe you love the Bumble from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This humble blogger’s all-time fave is Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
If you recall my last Throwback Thursdays post, I revisited A Troll in Central Park and realized it was kind of a terrible movie. Upon re-watching this week’s topic, I had a similar revelation. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, based on the Christmas song of the same name, is pretty darn hokey. Unlike A Troll in Central Park, however, it definitely still has its charms.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town takes on the challenge of explaining every nuance of the Santa Claus legend. Why is he sometimes called Kris Kringle? Because he was adopted as an orphaned baby by a family of toymaking elves called the Kringles. Why does he do things like come in through the chimney and leave presents in stockings? Well, it’s because the first place he tried to give gifts was Sombertown, a grim place where toys were made illegal by the town’s cantankerous Burgermeister. He had to sneak around to keep from being arrested and to protect the kids from having their toys confiscated first thing in the morning. He even only grew a beard because the Burgermeister’s wanted posters showed him clean-shaven.
Throughout the course of the movie he meets a variety of people, including Sombertown’s schoolteacher (and future Mrs. Claus) Jessica, and the Winter Warlock. The Warlock, or Winter as he ends up wanting to be called, begins as an antagonist, blocking the path between the Kringles’ house and Sombertown. Kris quickly manages to defeat him, but not through any show of power. He offers Winter a toy—the first present he’s ever been given—and melts his frozen heart by doing so. For the rest of the movie Winter is Kris’s magical ally, giving the otherwise non-powered Kringle access to flying reindeer and a magic snowball in which he can check on children’s behavior.
The musical numbers are of mixed quality at best. Easily the best and catchiest original number in the movie is “One Foot in Front of the Other”, which Kris sings to Winter, encouraging him that changing his ways to be a good person takes practice and determination. “Be Prepared to Pay,” which Kris sings to the kids of Sombertown while distributing gifts, is, well, at best I can only call it a product of a more innocent time, as it features lyrics like “if you sit on my lap today, a kiss a toy is the price you’ll pay.” I spend that song trying to remind myself that the message is meant to be “everyone gets a toy regardless of how much money you have” and not “I am a creepy, creepy man.” Jessica sings the forgettable “My World Is Beginning Today” in the world’s trippiest animated sequence, after she leaves Sombertown. It’s her one big solo moment in the movie, and it’s mostly framed around how she’s fallen in love with Kris. At least there is a named female character?
I think the reason I still enjoy this movie after all this time is that it does have some good and even subversive messages. Rebelling against an unfair authority for the right to have fun, for example, and being generous even when society doesn’t reward you for doing so. Unfortunately for the larger Sombertown society, this rebellion remains toy-related; the Burgermeister is never actually defeated or overthrown. Rather, as the narrator tells us, his dynasty eventually died off, as dynasties are wont to, and a nicer one came to power. A rebellion would be a little heavy for a kid’s movie, especially one made forty-five years ago, but I always though the ending was sort of a cop-out.
My biggest issue with it, though, is that it gets too involved in the explanations of traditions by the end. Throughout the film, each time a new Christmas tradition is set in place, the narrator and the children listening to him have a “So that’s why Santa does (x)!” dialogue. By the end of the movie, the revelations they couldn’t fit into the larger plot of the film are coming a mile a minute—this is why Santa lives at the North Pole and only comes once a year and why that once a year is on Christmas, etc, etc.
All that said, I do still love this movie. It has a lot of charm, and maybe it’s just the generous spirit of Christmas, but I’m willing to look past its sort-of-forced plot and the holes in said plot to see the intent behind it. If you find yourself with some downtime this holiday and catch it on TV, check it out! Maybe you’ll find a new favorite stop-motion movie yourself.