Miracle on 34th Street is a 1994 remake of the 1947 film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and Natalie Wood. The movie tells of a man who claims to be the real Santa Claus. Not surprisingly, many think he is simply playing the part of a department store Santa, or that he is a senile old man. The story is well-paced, has good development, and strong performances. It comes as no surprise that the movie is a Christmas season favorite.
The story focuses on a man who assumes the position of department store Santa Claus after the previous, obviously “fake,” Santa Claus was fired. However, the man, known only as Kris Kringle, claims he is the real Santa Claus. Given the fact that the department store, Cole’s, was recently bailed out by banks and is hoping to have strong holiday shopping numbers, its primary business adversary is ready to smear Kringle in an effort to put Cole’s out of business.
The woman who hired Kringle, Dorey Walker, is not an adherent of the Santa legend, primarily because she was profoundly disappointed when she learned “truth” during her own childhood. As such, she has told her young daughter, Susan, that Santa Claus is not real. This clashes with Bryan Bedford, an attorney and Dorey’s boyfriend, who contends that children should grow up enjoying the Santa legend without having it spoiled at a young age.
Susan befriends Kringle, who is insistent that he is the real Santa. She makes a deal with him that if he can get her what she wants for Christmas, then she will be a believer. This puts additional pressure on Kringle as he becomes a target of corporate sabotage and a New York court must rule on the veracity of Kringle’s claim, potentially endangering the Santa tradition.
The movie’s pacing very well done and is a hallmark of the movie. Though a Christmas movie to its core, Miracle on 34th Street takes place between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. This manageable time frame provides enough time for good character and narrative development while not being so macro that it dilutes its development. Some films’ settings only cover the time from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning or a few days before Christmas. Doing so is well and good, but it creates a different perspective on time. Miracle on 34th Street timespan benefits the story it portrays.
Miracle on 34th Street’s tone appropriately shifts with the narrative. It is hopeful, overall, but that is challenged when viewers are presented with a dire situation once Kringle becomes the target of business competition. The movie also has tonal elements of conviction and believing what you want, even if others do not believe the same thing or discourage you from accepting something they do not. This is evidenced throughout the movie, particularly by the juxtaposition of Susan and Byran’s views and Kringle’s unfaltering claim with Dorey and her staunch disbelief in Santa.
The movie’s performances are pretty good. Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson are standouts, however. Attenborough’s persuasive portrayal of Kringle and his jovial demeanor will likely have viewers accepting that he is in fact Santa Claus. From his costuming to character absorption, Attenborough’s performance will not soon be forgotten.
Mara Wilson also delivers an incredible performance. She effectively communicates Susan’s child-like innocence on the one hand, and her being a very mature and aware character on the other hand. The observations and statements Susan makes shows that she understands more than the story’s adults would like to admit. The manner in which Wilson delivers Susan’s well-spoken lines is masterfully executed. Susan is wise well beyond her years and viewers will remember the charm of this character.
Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott also provide good performances. Perkins’ character has a well-developed arc. At first, she is a bit repulsive in the way she treats Susan like a contemporary and not a child, namely the fact that she does not want Susan wasting her time with legends and traditions. This may, however, tie into the fact that Susan is mature for her age and perhaps, in addition to wanting to protect her from disappointment, her mother feels that Susan would think the idea of Santa Claus in nonsense anyway. Nevertheless, the way in which Dorey treats both Susan and Bryan is fairly shocking, but she does warm to the fact that if Kringle proves he is the true Santa, per Kringle and Susan’s agreement, then she will accept it as well.
McDermott does a good job depicting Bedford’s situation. He is trying to love and accept Susan as his own daughter, but struggles in connecting with Dorey, due to her emotional walls. McDermott’s scenes when he acts as Kringle’s lawyer are quite compelling and effective.
In general, the movie’s cinematography is great. The medium, aerial, and establishing shots are all great. Yet I did not like how it used lighting, specifically the halo effect and top lighting. In nearly every scene, the main characters have intense halo and top lighting, which is quite distracting for viewers. It would be acceptable if this were done sparingly or for effect, but that is sadly not the case. This is most noticeable on Perkins, McDermott, and Wilson. It would have been wise if director Les Mayfield and cinematographer Julio Macat would have opted against this lighting technique. It did not contribute anything to the characters or the story and was more of a nuisance to have to constantly witness.
The film also has excellent production design. From the set design of Cole’s department store, being a traditional-styled department and toy store, to Kringle’s cane, tweed, hat, and accessories, to the highly detailed and impressively realized Santa suit, Miracle on 34th Street’s set and characters look the part. Kringle’s Santa suit may be the best Santa Claus costume depiction in film. To my memory, only Tim Allen’s suit in The Santa Claus, which was also released in 1994, comes close in challenging the expert costume and production design.
Miracle on 34th Street’s music is also used to great effect. The holiday songs are bound to put viewers in the holiday spirit. The more serious and somber orchestral elements during Kringle’s targeting and trial successfully set the ambiance for these scenes and exemplifies great continuity with the film’s tonal changes.
Aside from the lighting choices, Les Mayfield does a fair job in his direction. He is able to extract very strong and memorable performances from his actors and create a movie that will be a holiday favorite for many. The way Mayfield uses the film’s aforementioned tonal elements helps propel the film’s pacing and sharpens the emotional investment viewers will put into their screening.
In the end, Miracle on 34th Street is a holiday movie that should not be missed. Despite its comical and disruptive reliance on halo and top lighting, the film’s story, characters, and production design are all very sound and convincing. If you have yet to see this film, I definitely recommend you watch it. If you have previously seen Miracle on 34th Street, then it is probably time you watch it once again.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Production: Twentieth Century Fox; Hughes Entertainment
Director: Les Mayfield
Producer: John Hughes
Screenwriter: Valentine Davies (story); George Seaton (1947 screenplay); George Seaton; John Hughes
Director of Photography: Julio Macat
Editor: Raja Gosnell
Music: Bruce Broughton
Costume Designer: Kathy O’Rear
Casting Director: Janet Hirshenson; Jane Jenkins
Production Designer: Doug Kraner
Release Date: November 18, 1994 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Panavision Super 70; Spherical; VistaVision
Copyright Holder: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Cast: Richard Attenborough; Mara Wilson; Elizabeth Perkins; Dylan McDermott; J.T. Walsh; James Remar; Jane Leeves; Simon Jones; William Windom; Robert Proskey
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Rating: PG; Descriptors: Some mild language.
Running Time: 1 hour and 54 minutes (114 mins.)