Witty, nostalgic `Santa Claus' is a film for the whole family

It's not a bird! It's not a plane! And it's not Superman, either! So who is that buzzing around the sky on Christmas Eve, when everyone else is tucked in bed dreaming of sugarplums?

It's none other than Santa Claus, in his very own movie at last. And it isn't a modest little heart-warmer. It's a would-be blockbuster with a huge cast, exotic locations, and a story that spans centuries. Not to mention the fanciest visual effects this side of, well, ``Superman,'' which came from the same producers. As the posters might have put it during my own movie-struck childhood: SEE a magic kingdom at the North Pole. SEE Donder and Blitzen do loop-the-loops over the Manhattan skyline. SEE our h ero fight a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way of Christmas.

The trick in making a family film, as opposed to a kiddie film, is finding ways to interest grown-ups without boring, confusing, or grossing out the younger set. ``Santa Claus'' does pretty well in this department. There's a gentle nostalgia angle to the first half, wherein a kindly old man is magically transformed into you-know-who, complete with a red suit (he tries green, but it just isn't his color) and a ``little round belly'' that dieting won't dent. And there are touches of sharp wit to the later

scenes, which pit Santa against a big-money toy tycoon so greedy he'll exploit anything -- even a runaway elf and a secret stolen from the North Pole workshop.

There's nothing subtle about any of this, but smart performances bring much of it off. David Huddleston is the Santa of Hollywood's dreams, his roly-poly physique matched by a twinkly eye and a warm-as-toast voice. Dudley Moore was born to play elves, and he gets his chance as Patch, who tries to modernize Santa's operation and nearly runs it into the tundra. John Lithgow brings his gift for hysteria (so inspired in the ``Twilight Zone'' movie) to the bad-guy businessman whose favorite sound is a good,

loud knuckle-crack. Farther down the line, Burgess Meredith shows up as an elderly elf with a beard so long he needs two porters to carry it; and as the loving Mrs. Santa, Judy Cornwell could have stepped from the pages of a storybook.

Having said all this, I'll turn Scrooge for a moment and complain that ``Santa Claus'' drags on too long; many of the gags are older than the North Pole; and the occasional rough language will grate on the ears of viewers who expect Yuletide fare to be spotlessly clean. The early teens in my family, who accompanied me to a preview, also had gripes. Both felt the movie was pleasant but corny, and they weren't charmed by the somewhat comical New York kids who play a part in the story.

There's no question that ``Santa Claus'' means well, though, and it's likely to entertain most people who are willing to meet it on its own old-fashioned terms. In these dry days, moreover, any bona fide family film (even one with a ``parental guidance'' tag from the rating folks) is a welcome thing.

I met with director Jeannot Szwarc the other day, a few hours before the picture's world premi`ere, and found him very concerned about the ``vicious circle'' that militates against family films. ``The research seems to indicate that the biggest audience is between 14 and 24 years old,'' said the French-born filmmaker. ``So the studios aim at that audience, and older people get so turned off they won't even bother to see what's playing. Every year my friends call me around Christmastime and ask what the y can take their kids to see. I don't know what to tell them!''

Szwarc doesn't see ``Santa Claus'' as a self-conscious ``corrective'' to this situation, but he hopes it will help restore ``positive human values'' to the movie scene -- the sort of values espoused, in his view, by such classic filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini as well as Woody Allen, whom he finds ``the greatest artist in films today.'' Like a good book, says Szwarc, a movie ``should enlighten you, give you some insight. I never understood why so many films expect me to spend two hou rs with people I wouldn't give 10 minutes in real life.''

This doesn't mean movies must be rosy and unrealistic, he adds. ``John Ford showed abominable conditions in `The Grapes of Wrath,' but his characters had dignity and humanity,'' the director notes. ``He was a humanist. And I don't think we're ever going to lose that. People want to see characters who have heart and brains. I like pictures with heart!''

Along with heart, ``Santa Claus'' has a whopping big budget -- some $50 million, which is towering even by today's inflated standard. Yet the filmmakers resisted the temptation to jazz up their project with space-age sequences or video-game graphics. From its real live reindeer to its Santa's workshop built entirely of wood, ``Santa Claus'' is a proud throwback to an earlier movie age. ``It's not a film for cynics,'' the director says. ``We wanted to make a classic fairy tale. And I think we have.''

``Santa Claus'' is rated PG, reflecting some vulgar language.

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