Miracle on 34th Street (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Every year around the Christmas season, it seems impossible to turn on the television without seeing either George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street or Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Like Handel's "Messiah", evergreen trees, red suits, and the seemingly-endless barrage of carols, these films have become indicative of the time of year. Considering the wide availability of Miracle on 34th Street, it's curious why Home Alone's John Hughes targeted the movie for a remake. This isn't some obscure title gathering dust on video store shelves. Writer/producer Hughes and his director Les Mayfield have taken an audacious - and some would argue ill-advised - step in remaking such a highly-visible and often-rerun motion picture. (There was also a 1973 made-for-TV version that I know little about.) The result is similar to the case of Warren Beatty's recent Love Affair. While certainly enjoyable, the film doesn't attain the level of its predecessor, and there aren't enough changes to infuse this movie with a sense of freshness or originality. The touches added to modernize the story are mostly minor (like Kriss Kringle appearing on Good Morning America) and often ineffective.

For 1994's Miracle, Cole's department store has replaced Macy's on New York's 34th Street, but little else has changed. The movie opens with a white-bearded Kriss Kringle (Richard Attenborough) berating an inebriated Santa for providing a bad example for the millions of children who will watch him in the annual Cole's Thanksgiving Day parade. When the drunk then makes a fool out of himself, parade director Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) decides that she needs an emergency replacement. Given Kriss' "genuine" appearance, he is her first choice. His subsequent success on the parade route leads to the Santa job at Cole's, where his uncanny ability to communicate with children and adults leads to a huge leap in holiday sales for the floundering department store.

The message of Miracle on 34th Street is one of hope for a society which has become increasingly jaded and cynical: that, even in the '90s, men and women can still look beyond their selfish interests to see - and react to - the needs of others. Kriss Kringle is not just a red-suited man sitting in a department store, but a symbol of all that is good about Christmas. If people can no longer believe in Santa Claus and all he represents, argues the film, the world has become a sad and hopeless place. Dorey and her young daughter Susan (Mrs. Doubtfire's Mara Wilson) are both non-believers. For them, Santa Claus is a myth passed down from parents to children. This lack of faith leeches away the magic of the season for them. Kriss, with the help of Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott), Dorey's neighbor and would-be-suitor, decides to teach them to accept who he claims to be.

Because of the unprecedented financial windfall his presence has brought to Cole's, Kriss becomes the focal point of a power play by the owner of a rival department store (played by the so-easy-to-dislike Joss Ackland). The aim of Shopper's Express is to discredit Kriss by having him declared insane. This leads to a trial where Bedford, as Kriss' attorney, must try to prove that his client is the real Santa Claus. The most significant change made to the 1994 script is the manner in which Bedford chooses to verify Kriss' identity (it has something to do with a $1 bill). Inferior to the method used in the 1947 version (where the post office forwarded Santa's mail to Kriss), the remake's resolution relies upon an argument founded on tenuous logic, diminishing the effectiveness of the court proceedings.

Casting for 1994's Miracle on 34th Street varies from ineffectual to inspired. Richard Attenborough's finely-tuned, low-key portrayal of Kriss Kringle recalls Edmund Gwenn's Oscar-winning performance without copying it. Young Mara Wilson is not only winsome, but a far more apt performer than her predecessor, Natalie Wood. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott, who function more as ciphers than legitimate personalities, pale in comparison to the 1947 edition's Maureen O'Hara and John Payne.

Miracle on 34th Street remains a solid family feature (for those who don't mind its seasonal - albeit essentially non-religious - theme), with no vulgarity, nudity, or violence. Even in this newest incarnation, the film maintains its appeal, especially for those willing to suspend both disbelief and cynicism. Miracle on 34th Street is unrepentantly nostalgic, sentimental, and manipulative, yet for those very reasons (which typically sink any "serious" production), it's difficult to dislike. The magic of the original, although possibly diluted, has not been dispersed.

Miracle on 34th Street (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 1994-11-18
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1