This post originally appeared as an article in the Ponte Vedra Recorder on Dec. 10, 2004. The Florida Press Association awarded it first place in the Criticism category in its annual awards.
Santa vs. the Snowman is a bit like a Christmas tree that has been pruned down to the trunk. Try to hang ornaments and they fall, broken, to the ground. Wrap the thing in lights if you like, but it’s still just an oversized, glowing toothpick. The most you can do is put a star on the top and wish for the best.
And that’s a real shame, because the film features some very funny voice talent and the big-screen IMAX film treatment.
It begins as a typical “Christmas that almost wasn’t” story. Santa Claus (voiced by Jonathan Winters) is having some computer troubles—”Looks like little William Gates just waltzed his way onto the naughty list,” he says—and so takes a break from Christmas planning to tell the audience about the time a snowman almost took over the North Pole and ruined Christmas.
Sounds like this snowman is a cold-hearted villain, right? Santa’s not exactly describing the traditional Frosty.
But the tables turn when we go back in time and are introduced to the lonely, adorable snowman. He’s never met anyone else, and therefore does not know how to speak. He can only play his ice flute, alone in the barren wasteland of the frozen north.
One night, something loud and obnoxious—presumably a red sled pulled by rocket-hooved reindeer—flies over the snowman’s igloo, causing his ice flute to tumble to the ground in pieces. In his lonely wanderings, he soon stumbles upon the North Pole in all its commercialized glory. The rhinoceros-nosed elves are busy making their billion-toys-per-week and singing of their adoration for old Kris Kringle.
Er, make that “cult-like following of their dictatorial leader, Kris Kringle.” Seriously, it’s creepy.
But the snowman admires it. How wonderful to be Santa and loved by everyone!
In the window of the elves’ workshop is a shiny new flute, which the snowman steals to replace his broken one. In a flash, all the joy in the North Pole is replaced by blaring sirens and bright lights.
Santa’s headquarters becomes a compound, a military base defended by giant toy soldiers and Top Gun elves on snowmobiles.
“OK, boys,” an elf squadron leader says. “Let’s deck the halls.”
The snowman has no chance but to flee for his life, dropping the stolen flute in the process.
The film then takes a cue from 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, as the snowman decides that he should become Santa Claus. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington of Halloweentown wants to kidnap the jolly Claus and become Santa for Christmas. Even with a cast that includes a skeleton, a boogey man, vampires, witches and a mad scientist, The Nightmare Before Christmas shows more Christmas spirit than Santa vs. the Snowman can blink at.
The snowman creates smiling snow minions and armed igloo vehicles—think of the mechanized scout walkers in Star Wars, only made of ice. When he attacks the North Pole, a military battle ensues. Santa sends elves with hot cocoa guns and fresh-baked gingerbread men to melt the snow minions. The snowman retaliates by freezing the elves where they stand.
When it’s time to get out the big guns, Santa draws first. “Prepare my assault vehicle,” he says. “Santa’s coming to town!” The vehicle is a giant nutcracker, which is convenient since the snowman’s secret weapon comes in the form of a giant chestnut.
The snowman calls out a beast that is, most likely, supposed to be an abominable snowman. It is a fight to the finish and, whichever side wins, they have managed to drain any essence of Christmas from the film. It’s a war movie that pits one antagonist against another. Whom do we root for?
There are some elements that brighten up this otherwise dreary tale, however. Though Jonathan Winters’s Santa seems to have a deity complex similar to Marlon Brando’s Col. Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, he does get some funny lines. And “Spunky the Tour Guide Elf” is voiced by Ben Stein in his familiar and amusing deadpan.
On the other hand, some of the lines hardly seem appropriate for the young viewers to whom the film is geared. One of the war room elves—-there’s a disturbing image to start with—tells another that he hasn’t committed to his long-term girlfriend yet because, as he says, “Why buy the igloo if you’re getting the ice for free?”
This same elf has a representation of a gun on his belt buckle. Even the Wicked Witch of the West had those clever flying monkeys. Must Santa resort to simple firearms? Well, it’s probably a hot cocoa gun. I guess that’s OK, right?
Santa vs. the Snowman is playing at the World Golf Hall of Fame IMAX Theater through the holidays.