What makes a Christmas special a classic? There are several factors, the most significant being how impressionable you were when you saw said special and the influence of your respective demographic. For me, the animated Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated 1966 version narrated with Grinchy glee by Boris Karloff), and J.T. (1969) are among my favorites. Not so keen on the most recent ascendant to holiday classic status, A Christmas Story (1983), which was first released when I was in my mid-20s. Still, it's a bona fide favorite, airing in a marathon starting on Christmas Eve on TBS.
Every year, someone tries to reconstitute the Christmas movie that will strike gold on the small screen. This year's entry is The Year Without a Santa Claus. Based on the book by Phyllis McGinley, it has many of the hallmarks of a holiday classic in waiting, the most crucial being a disenchanted main character. Here, it's Santa himself, played by John Goodman, who frets that the spirit of Christmas has been lost: "If [kids] can't see it or buy it, it doesn't exist to them." Even the North Pole where the Christmas spirit (minus the religious overtones) should be secure has fallen under the thrall of commercialism, thanks to the leadership of head elf Sparky (Chris Kattan, Saturday Night Live). Santa's toy factory is now known as SantaCo, and Sparky is its ambitious CEO. After attending a pre-Christmas toy expo where the toy-making elves present loud and violent video games and toys that require multiple tie-in purchases, a disgusted Santa decides to skip Christmas altogether.
Goodman is a down-to-earth Santa Claus, playing old St. Nick as a very large kid lumbering around in a cynical romantic's tired body. To prove him wrong and save Christmas, two side characters step up: elves Jingle and Jangle, played by Eddie Griffin (Scary Movie 3) and Ethan Suplee (My Name Is Earl).
Like other holiday films, The Year Without a Santa Claus trades on the "What happened to the Christmas spirit?" theme by critiquing modernity, in this case through pop cultural references. Jingle is a TV junkie, and his references are incessant and curious, given that online media is challenging TV's influence. (Is that handheld TV Jingle totes around wireless or run by magic?) No matter: It's his TV habit that helps the pair locate Iggy Thistlewhite (Dylan Minnette), a boy who they think can convince Santa Claus that the Christmas spirit lives. There's only one problem: Iggy doesn't believe in Santa Claus.
From here, we get the sneaking-off-without-permission device and all the necessary obstacles. The film jogs along nicely enough, with the exception of a bloated side story about Mother Nature's (Carol Kane) dueling sons, Heatmiser and Snowmiser (Harvey Fierstein and Michael McKean). Kane is enduringly charming and Fierstein and McKean suitably doofy but time is sorely wasted in a plot device that exists merely so that Santa Claus can keep his promise to Iggy once the required conversion experience occurs. Wouldn't magic have been quicker?
There are several humorous cameos in this film, including an uncredited actress who plays the Greek Goddess Artemis working undercover on Earth as a gym teacher. This actress is gut-bustingly funny in a role that is far too brief when compared to the time spent on Heat-miser and Snowmiser. In fact, her role is part of the underlying, richer story about the role that myth and story plays in cultures, even modern ones. That this theme struggles to make itself known while the Mother Nature story takes up too much space and time is unfortunate. But I'm admittedly old-school. The rapid location jumps, wacky antics (including a scene in a video arcade), and the overall goofiness will please those schooled in short-attention-span theatre. And there are enough pop culture references to keep older children happy, while adults will appreciate references to prior Christmas classics. Is this iteration of The Year Without a Santa Claus a new Christmas classic? Not for me, but I'm not in the demographic that decides.
The Year Without a Santa Claus airs Monday, Dec. 11, 8pm on NBC.