Richard Attenborough could be the best on-screen Santa. He isn’t the usual over-weight, rosy-cheeked, mythical version of the character that movies like The Santa Clause brings to life but instead a more “realistic” version. If Father Christmas was real, this would be what he was like. Attenborough does such a good job of making you believe he is Father Christmas that you are rooting for him throughout the movie.
This isn’t a movie of grand gestures or a large sled-led finale. In fact little of real action or event happens beyond an interesting court room drama. It is in this realism that the movie builds Attenborough as Kris Kringle. Simple moments have a huge impact, like signing for a deaf girl or directing parents to cheaper shops than the one he is working in.
This extends further when he is interacting with the central, unbelieving family. Led by Mara Wilson on full cuteness overload, the central story involves convincing Wilson’s Susan and her Mum, Dorey (played by Elizabeth Walker), of Father Christmas’ authenticity. This is where the issues arise because the movie is never really sure of what it wants to be and what tone it is trying to strike.
On the more family-friendly side there is are comical villains and slapstick gags which raise a smile and an eye-roll. Even the lawyer against Kris Kringle is played as under-hand and slimy by J.T Walsh. This would be fine but the rest of the film is played as a straight-drama. The court room scenes have funny moments but it is still a court-room drama at it’s core and this is hardly kid-friendly or full of magical wonder.
This isn’t to say it doesn’t work but it is just jarring in places. The actual story is great and the court-room drama itself is effective. You want to believe that Attenborough is Santa and although it plays with court-room conventions loosely, it is a story which fills you with Christmas cheer.
This should help you look the other way at key moments as Miracle does stretch credibility a fair bit. You find this easy enough to do once the predictable but charming happy-ending brings the movie to a close.
Overall, Miracle on 34th Street is a movie of two conflicting styles. It is a drama about belief and family on one side but on the other has a silly, unbelievable vein throughout. The charm and Christmas spirit is enough to see it through though and it delivers Attenborough as movie’s best Santa.
Rating – 3.5
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