Should I Watch..? 'Miracle On 34th Street' (1994)
What's the big deal?
Miracle On 34th Street is a festive comedy drama film released in 1994 and is a remake of the beloved 1947 film of the same name. Written and produced by John Hughes who had enjoyed success with his earlier Christmas movie Home Alone, the film sees a department store Santa put on trial after he insists that he is the genuine article. The film stars Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Mara Wilson and Dylan McDermott. The film was intended for a limited release but 20th Century Fox were encouraged to expand the film's release after extremely positive feedback from test audiences. Sadly, the film was overshadowed by another Christmas release The Santa Clause which left the film with global takings of just $46.2 million. The film also received a mixed response from critics, possibly due to the close similarities and inconsistent tone of the film itself.
What's it about?
Dorey Walker, events coordinator for historic New York store Cole's, is preparing to start the store's famous Thanksgiving Day parade when she discovers that the man playing Santa Claus is drunk. With no other option, she manages to persuade kindly old man Kris Kringle to step up and play the role instead due to his uncanny resemblance to Santa. Kris agrees and is so popular in the role that the owner of Cole's agrees to offer him a job as the store's Santa, much to the chagrin of rival store owner Victor Landberg and his assistants Jack Duff and Alberta Leonard.
While he easily charms the children in store, Kris finds the sceptical daughter of Dorey, Susan, is much harder to convince that he is the actual Santa Claus. Realising that her cynicism stems from her world weary mother, Kris makes a deal with Susan to get her everything she wants for Christmas (a dad, a house and a brother) in order to make her believe in him. Unfortunately for Kris, he finds himself unwittingly embroiled in scandal and is soon imprisoned in a mental institution.
Judge Henry Harper
John Hughes & George Seaton*
Release Date (UK)
18th November, 1994
Comedy, Drama, Festive, Romance
What's to like?
Aside from washing the film in glorious reds and greens, this Miracle On 34th Street is much more than just a simple remake. Wisely deciding to stick closely to the timeless original, the film brings a heightened sense of comedy as well as bringing the romantic subplot more into focus. Perkins and McDermott make a visually appealing couple but don't really give off much chemistry which is a shame. Thank Heavens for Wilson as little Susan as she delivers a performance full of wide-eyed awe and amazement while still dropping lines that no six-year-old would ever say. Of course, the big question is whether Attenborough can step into the considerable boots of Edmund Gwenn - the star of the original film who appeared as the effortlessly heart-warming Kris Kringle. Attenborough matches Gwenn's good-humoured and gentle performance but doesn't bring anything new to the table. Much like the film as a whole, you end up wondering what the point of all this is.
Nevertheless, the film does still have one or two improvements over the original Miracle On 34th Street. It has a better soundtrack, full of festive favourites that help the film feel more Christmassy. The film also works hard to inject some Christmas magic into proceedings with snow falling at the drop of a hat (something which was sorely missing from the original) and plenty of feel-good moments such as Kringle communicating with a deaf child via sign language. In essence, the film is a serviceable update on the original and brings the magic to viewers snobbish about black-and-white cinema.
- There are two reasons why Macy's and Gimbels were not included in this remake. Macy's refused to have their name attached to the film so they were substituted by the fictional Cole's. Gimbels sadly went out of business in 1987 and was replaced by "Shopper's Express".
- During the film's initial run, 20th Century Fox offered refunds to any viewer that didn't enjoy the movie. In the end, they had to refund around 1500 tickets.
- Director Mayfield and producer Hughes would work together again on their next film Flubber which was also a remake of another classic family favourite, The Absent-Minded Professor.
What's not to like?
My biggest issue, aside from a lack of original ideas, is the weakness of the cast. Besides Wilson and Attenborough, nobody really brings much enthusiasm to the project - Remar isn't much more than a walking sneer and poor Leeves has so little to do, I assumed her character had been written out at some point and nobody had the heart to tell the actress she was fired. Speaking of the villains, why were they inserted into the film at all - the original cleverly used the rivalry between Macy's and Gimbels to help illustrate Kris Kringle's credentials (try saying that drunk!) as the actual Santa. Here, the uninspired Shopper's Express is utterly devoid of identity and imagination despite Joss Ackland hamming it up as the evil store owner.
Miracle On 34th Street isn't a bad film as such because it doesn't do too much wrong. But it does feel like safe film-making - the movie never takes any risks and stays too close to the original without adding anything to it. As a result, it will always remain in the lengthy shadow of the original and will probably not get as much love in years to come. And weirdly, I get the impression that most of the cast knew it. They all do what they can but they seem to understand that remaking a classic such as Miracle On 34th Street is an ultimately fruitless exercise. As Gus Van Sant discovered when he remade Psycho shot-for-shot in 1998, there isn't a market or a reason to produce a remade version of iconic classic films. It's difficult enough to capture lightning in a bottle once - twice is a fool's errand.
Should I watch it?
There isn't anything too wrong with Miracle On 34th Street but it's only really going to appeal to viewers who haven't seen the original. The film has its heart in the right place, offering plenty of festive cheer and an unnecessarily dramatic love story at its heart. But it lacks the sincerity of the original and sticks too closely to the first film's magic, riding its coat-tails instead of being brave enough to offer something different. It's a good enough film but unlike the original, it's no classic.
Great For: festive viewings, young families, New York residents, anyone who hasn't seen the original
Not So Great For: fans of the first film, anyone hoping for a holiday classic, cynical film critics
What else should I watch?
It's easy for someone like me to reiterate the myth that classic Hollywood films in black-and-white are the only ones to generate genuine goodwill. And with films like the original Miracle On 34th Street, Holiday Inn and of course It's A Wonderful Life, it's an easy argument to make as all of these films have become cherished icons of the season. But Hollywood still knows how to produce Christmas films that have since become equally popular - audiences have embraced the likes of Love Actually, Will Ferrell's lovable Elf and CG animation The Polar Express.
Hollywood has a long tradition of ploughing old fields in search of unpolished gems to reinvigorate and present to modern audiences. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes films already established and attempts to remake them simply for commercial reasons instead of artistic. Nobody I know considers the likes of Carrie, Dr Dolittle or The Karate Kid superior to their respective originals and they carry the stink of a studio desperately hoping for a quick buck.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox