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Remaking the Miracle

6 December 2011 No Comment

By Joshua Cornelius

I’ll be honest with you, we haven’t seen the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street.  It has less to do with the involvement of John Hughes or Encino Man director Les Mayfield then it has to do with the freakishly wall-eyed sight of young Mara Wilson paired with Richard Attenborough’s Kris Kringle.  Attenborough will always have a place in my heart for his filmmaking and involvement in The Great Escape, but still owes a death from the finale of Jurassic Park.  He also directed a film called Grey Owl about a Canadian man who claimed to be Native American suitably named “Archie Grey Owl”… played by Pierce Brosnan.  I’m also imagining he has wicked and chronic halitosis, though I have nothing but imagination and nightmares to base that on.

So yes, we didn’t watch the film because of Mara Wilson’s cloudy, mackerel eyes and the grey Beholder-esque roundness of Sir Richard.  Luckily for us, a reviewer for IMDB has, and has done a perfectly lovely job of articulating what does and doesn’t work about the film.  The uncredited reviewer goes by “Oct” and references an e-mail address we’ll not post here.  For anyone looking to validate this commentary, it can be found here.

Richard Attenborough returned to acting after 14 years behind the camera in “Jurassic Park”, and followed it swiftly by daring to challenge comparison with Oscar-winner Edmund Gwenn in this remake.

As a heartwarmer for those inadequates who won’t sit through a 60-year-old monochrome movie– albeit one which rivals “It’s a Wonderful Life” as Hollywood’s answer to “A Christmas Carol”– this John Hughes revamp will probably serve. Anyhow, there are plenty of copies on sale at the checkout of my local supermarket. But it is a bit too laid-back and, latterly, too bogged down in argument for younger kids or older boys. It may warm more cockles among the grandparents.

The main thematic interest is how Hughes chooses to tweak the original screen story as adapted (unusually for the time) by the director, George Seaton. Whether he sought to or not, the remake has thrown up some intriguing twists for a more skeptical and secular time.

The oldie caught the mood of an America yearning to get back to normalcy amid the perils of the post-war, Cold War world. Location shooting in New York City, with much co-operation from Macys, gave a touch of realism to the fantasy, whereas in 1994 it’s an imaginary store and (for Americans, at least) an incongruously “veddy British” claimant to the chair of Santa Claus- although his nationality is not the issue when the legal meanies of the State of New York try to get him confined to the bughouse.

What is striking is the judge’s rationale for allowing Kris’s plea for freedom. Because US bills have “In God We Trust” on them, he reasons, it means New York is allowed to have blind faith in the existence of a supernatural being who lays presents on 1.7 billion children in one night, operating from invisible workshops with reindeer which cannot be made to fly in a courtroom demonstration of his powers because it isn’t Christmas Eve. Besides, the sneery prosecutor’s kids were raised to believe in him, so there- case closed.

In real life the ACLU would be appealing such a judgement all the way to the Supreme Court for allowing too much religion into the law and the public square. “In God We Trust” was only put on the money during the Cold War, to cock a snook at “Godless bolshevism”; but this film is refreshingly disrespectful to the newer orthodoxy of playing down most Americans’ beliefs in their films.

Kris asks if he should swear in the Bible, the Pope’s ruling on Nicholas’s sanctity is debated, and the ethos is quietly but unmistakably Christian. No “spiritual” Santa or “Happy Holidays” here. In a very light fashion, the film does revolve issues of how far it is legitimate to maintain a metaphor as a source of inspiration when rationalism of the Dawkins and Hitchens strain is sniping at it. The screenplay also looks quite beadily at the way commercial operators use holy myth to make money, even if the message comes muted from Hollywood.

That is the good news. There’s plenty to carp at as well.

Attenborough’s quiet, gentle but firm performance (most atypical of one who spent his previous acting time mainly playing unreliables or martinets) suffuses the film. He gets little competition, save from the contrasted crustiness of Windom. Most of the support is so-so, on the level of a Yuletide TV special, and not excluding little Wilson as the girl who has faith in Mr Kringle’s claim to be St Nicholas. She is no Margaret O’Brien, if no worse in her way than the kewpie-doll Natalie Wood. In fact, she’s a John Hughes moppet who did little later and nothing since 2000.

The narrative’s departures from the well shaped original are no help. Once off the legal hook, Kris, wearing a brown suit, just disappears– we don’t see any triumphal sleigh ride to bid him adieu– while attention shifts to a ridiculous post-midnight-mass impromptu wedding in a Catholic church. Then follows a trip out to a dream house in the snowy country, ushered by a silly salesman. The film does not seem to know when to call a halt, and there’s not so much as Clarence’s tinkling bell to bring back Kris at the close. It’s as if the whole object of the exercise was to unite two bland characters in matrimony.

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