“Miracle on 34th Street” is one of the genuinely beloved holiday movies, winner of a trio of Oscars in 1947 and a Christmas season fixture ever since. So producer/co-writer John Hughes, the force behind this remake, has understandably tried hard to be faithful to its spirit.
Hughes has shared his screenplay credit with initial writer George Seaton, cast Alvin Greenman (who played a teen-age Santa back then) in a cameo role, and even tried to get R.H. Macy’s to repeat its role as the story’s pivotal department store. Macy’s declined, a decision that now looks rather wise.
The problem is not that the original (from a story by Valentine Davies) has been trashed. In truth, Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson, taking on the roles that brought an Academy Award to Edmund Gwenn and stardom to a young Natalie Wood, do fine work and are the best things about this production.
It’s rather that Hughes and director Les Mayfield have undertaken to not just remake but update “Miracle,” which means making it cruder and more vulgar to match the tenor of modern times and Hughes’ fatuous sensibility. Although attracted to the original’s innocence, they eventually lost faith and ended up tampering with its purity in small but ruinous ways.
The basic outline of “Miracle” remains thankfully unchanged, although this version is a sluggish 18 minutes longer than its predecessor. It is the day of New York City’s big Thanksgiving parade, here sponsored by the C.F. Cole Department Store, a landmark on Manhattan’s 34th Street. But Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins), the store’s director of special projects, is more frazzled than happy.
It seems the store’s Santa, the parade’s piece de resistance , is too inebriated to do his festive duty. In desperation Dorey turns to a nearby old gent (Attenborough), who happens to look just like Mr. Claus and says that yes, he’s had a bit of experience in that line.
The old gent is a big success in the parade, ditto later in the week with the customers at Cole’s, where he astonishes everyone by directing shoppers to whatever store has the best prices, even if it’s the dread Shoppers Express (Gimbles in the original) just across the street.
He seems too good to be true, and in fact Dorey soon uncovers a glitch. The man not only says his name is Kriss Kringle, he claims with total sincerity to be the true Santa Claus, the one with the reindeer, the elves, the whole nine yards.
Of course rationalist Dorey finds this hard to believe, as does her 6-year-old daughter Susan (Mara Wilson), who has been trained to be as skeptical as her mom. “I’ve known for a long time,” Susan says in somber tones, “that he’s not real.” So Kriss’ task is not only to persuade the world to have faith but to bring the spirit of the holiday back to one particular family as well.
Looking every inch the emperor of the North Pole, Attenborough, an actor before he was a director, was an inspired choice for Kringle. His eyes have an Eveready battery twinkle, his chuckle is vigorous and hearty, and he has the impressive hauteur of someone who’s been important for ever so long. “If I didn’t know better,” a store executive says, “I’d think he was the real thing,” a sentiment audiences will inevitably share.
Matching him twinkle for twinkle is Wilson--Robin Williams’ youngest daughter in “Mrs. Doubtfire"--as the doubting Susan. An engaging, cheerfully precocious cherub, she also has an affecting melancholy side that keeps sugar overload from contaminating her performance.
After this, things gets dicier. The relationship between Susan’s mother and handsome neighbor Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott) is awkward and not even close to convincing. And the extended courtroom scenes where Kriss’ claims to be the real Santa are put to a legal challenge do little to hold our interest.
Least welcome of all are the hard edges Hughes and company have felt a compulsion to add to the mix. These range from having the inebriated Santa’s backside visible, to changing the force behind the trial (now it’s the sinister owner of Shoppers World, an uncredited Joss Ackland), to having someone bait poor Kriss with charges of child molestation. If this is pleasant escapism and the spirit of Christmas, it will be news to most folks.
Still, when “Miracle on 34th Street” remembers that it’s supposed to be a sweet piece of hokum, when it has the wit to leave Attenborough and Wilson on the screen together and forget about its rash of putative improvements, it does offer well-scrubbed family fare. Kriss himself would want us to forgive its flaws, and at this time of the year it gets harder and harder to turn the old gentleman down.
* MPAA rating: PG, for some mild language. Times guidelines: It includes a reference to child molestation, and other harsh touches sound discordant notes. ‘Miracle on 34th Street’
Richard Attenborough: Kriss Kringle
Elizabeth Perkins: Dorey Walker
Dylan McDermott: Bryan Bedford
J.T. Walsh: Ed Collins
James Remar: Jack Duff
Mara Wilson: Susan Walker
Robert Prosky: Judge Harper
A John Hughes production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Les Mayfield. Producer John Hughes. Executive producers William Ryan, William S. Beasley. Screenplay George Seaton and John Hughes, based on the 1947 motion picture screenplay by George Seaton. Cinematographer Julio Macat. Editor Raja Gosnell. Costumes Kathy O’Rear. Music Bruce Broughton. Production design Doug Kraner. Art director Steve Arnold. Set decorator Leslie Rollins. Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes.
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