The unspoken horrors of Disney’s Santa Clause trilogy

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Tim Allen played Santa Claus in three Disney movies between 1994 and 2006. Mark’s been overthinking their complex legal ramifications…

This feature contains major spoilers for all three Santa Clause movies. But as these are family films, I have done my level best not to use swear words.

On Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, one of his trademark Emergency Questions goes like this: “Do you think the film The Santa Clause could happen in real life?” Upon rewatching the movie and its sequels, the only sane answer is to keep everything crossed that it never would.

Written by screenwriters Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick, 1994’s The Santa Clause sees toy salesman and divorced dad Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) assume the duties of Santa Claus due to some magically binding contractual business involving the incumbent falling off his roof.

Disney backed the film through its more adult-oriented Hollywood Pictures label, but with Allen’s star on the rise from TV’s Home Improvement and positive test screening responses from younger audiences, the House of Mouse wound up releasing it under its own banner.

The Santa Clause was a big hit on release and did well enough that Disney made two (slightly belated) sequels in 2002 and 2006. Building on the narrative small-print of the original, they codify what turns out to be a not-very-Christmassy constitution.

This troubles me more than I like to admit, especially in the case of the second film, which turns 20 this week. Some of the implications and machinations make HBO’s Succession look like Arthur Christmas.

And as next week sees Allen don the red suit again for a Disney+ series called The Santa Clauses, I feel compelled to go over the legal ramifications of the trilogy’s various tinsel-handcuffs legalese. I’m not a lawyer, I have not read a single legal textbook in preparation for this, but I have rewatched all three (3!) Santa Clause films before writing this deranged dissertation. You are welcome.

i. The Santa Clause

The original title of Benvenuti and Rudnick’s script was … Such A Clatter, a reference to “The Night Before Christmas” that survives in the finished film’s laboured “Rose Suchak ladder” gag. The “add an E” legal pun of the title came in subsequent drafts.

For those unacquainted, the trouble starts when Scott checks Santa’s corpse for identification — yes, this is a Disney film. (‘Originally, I shot him,’ Allen joked in a 2017 interview with ABC News.)

The “Santa Claus, North Pole” business card he finds instructs Scott to put on his suit and the reindeer will know what to do. With son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) in tow, he climbs aboard the sleigh completes the Christmas delivery run and it’s only when he gets back to Santa HQ that he’s informed by Head Elf Bernard (David Krumholtz) that by doing as he’s told, he’s accepted a magical contract.

The wording of this contract, inscribed in miniscule writing on the card, goes:

ln putting on the suit and entering the sleigh, the wearer waives any and all rights to any previous identity, real or implied, and fully accepts the duties and responsibilities of Santa Claus in perpetuity until such time that wearer becomes unable to do so by either accident or design.

Bernard also tells him in no uncertain terms that waiving the contract means the end of Christmas, so Scott has to graciously accept his magical weight gain, hair whitening, and sudden intuition with children over the following months.

The transformation into a Coca Cola Father Christmas is coded as an involuntary thing, with all the magic that “if you kill Santa, you become Santa” entails. Not since the opening scene of 1985’s Brazil has Christmas looked so dystopian.

But never mind the personal liability – what about the entry requirements? Like many powerful men, the bar is as low as “ability to put on a suit” but the magical perks of the job are manifold, including complete control over a paramilitary army of gadget-toting elves. In the scheme of things, Scott seems a good egg, and not an actual murderer, but we reckon “either accident or design” rewards actual Santacide if that’s how the cookie crumbles. Either way, he’s above the law up there at the North Pole there.

Earlier drafts included a key gag that didn’t make it into the finished film – Bernard flippantly remarks that the turnover of Santas is increasingly high in the modern world, with slippery roofs, armed homeowners, and other air traffic, so this sort of thing happens all the time.

However, the sequence where the elves accident-proof Santa’s suit and sleigh made it all the way through from the first draft to the film, but this rationale is left out. The turnover made it into the novelisation, but that’s inadmissible for the sequels, which make Scott’s perfectly natural survival instincts look like the work of someone installing himself as Santa for life. And if power corrupts, then Christmas power must corrupt… Christmassily.

ii. The Mrs Clause

Another thing that changed from the earlier, more PG-13 versions of The Santa Clause was Scott’s marital status. In the first draft, he has a wife called Lynn, who goes with him to the North Pole and becomes Mrs Claus. Scott’s ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) and her husband Neal (Judge Reinhold) are his in-laws in this version, and things shuffled around in rewrites.

Making him a divorced, single dad opened up an avenue for the sequel, but not one it explored in its earliest drafts. When The Santa Clause 2 was first announced, it had the working title The Escape Clause (and we’ll come back to that). Reportedly, Don Rhymer’s script focused on “the best Santa ever” trying to balance his work at the North Pole and his home life, but that’s somehow the B-plot in the final film.

The film was delayed a year from its original planned release date in December 2001 as screenwriting duos Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Ed Decter & John J. Strauss took later passes on the script, which brought in the notion of a secondary clause. And counter to the problematic but precise wording of the original, this is how the Mrs Clause is delivered:

“The card holder acknowledges a woman of his choosing… true love… not valid in the state of Utah…  holy… matrimony?!” I gotta get married!”

Again, Scott has no choice in the matter and again, the future of Christmas is on the line if he refuses to follow the even-smaller print on the business card. The process of “de-Santafication” begins at once, leaving him just 27 days to go home and find a woman to wed.

(And yes, as fuzzy and vague as the language is, the film somehow finds room to specify that marriage is between a man and a woman – script aside, this outdated piece-of-poo constitution was probably written long before same-sex marriage was protected by law anywhere. Let me probably be the first to say that we at Film Stories fully support the rights of LGBTQ+ people to kill and become Santa and then marry who they please.)

All the evidence of The Santa Clause is that Scott is a decent enough dad to Charlie, but an abysmal husband and partner to Laura, undermining her and her husband (Reinhold at his nerdiest) whenever he can. Still, reverting to a more Allen-like form at least enables Scott to turn on (and I say this in the best, most withering Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest voice you can imagine) The Charm.

By the way, while Scott’s away from the North Pole, the screenwriters have taken a leaf out of the first two Toy Story films and given Allen in a dual role as his life-size toy substitute, a delusional plastic replica that comes to believe it’s the real thing. By the finale, it manufactures some allies and organises a military coup. Somehow, this is only the secondary plot in The Santa Clause 2.

Anyway, after a quite bad date with Christmas-obsessed Tracy, (Molly Shannon, pulling off the most intentional cringe comedy in all three films) he fixes his sights on Christmas-hating school principal Carol Newman (Elizabeth Mitchell).

With a little magic at his disposal, Scott sets about wooing Carol over to him and the spirit of the season. However, when he springs that he’s Santa Claus on her at the end of their first date, (no time for courtship and grown-up interactions, it’s almost Christmas!) she’s understandably put off.

She does get about all of a day to think it over and a little nudge from Charlie to send her to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Scott’s gone there to overthrow the Toy Santa, who by now is styled as a kind of Burger King Nazi who wants to give coal to every child in the world, and it really seems like duelling drafts got filmed and edited together.

The unstoppable force of the Buzz Lightyear tribute act collides with the immovable object that is “Tim Allen, romantic lead” in the climax, where Scott forgets to mention he needs to get married until the last possible moment. In that moment, when faced with the possibility that Christmas will be ruined for everyone unless she marries him immediately, Carol gladly accepts. Santa promises that once he’s back from his delivery, they’ve got a three-month honeymoon ahead.

And I wonder how many nights in those three months Mrs Claus laid awake wondering how life came to this. I hope she took solace in her (barely) arranged marriage allowing for the continued happiness of millions of children around the world.

And I shudder to think of the night she realised what must have happened to the contractually mandated wives of the previous Santas, when they perished on the job and were replaced by another man.

At best, The Santa Clause 2 is just a textbook case of second-movie syndrome, contrived to capitalise on a popular original and slathered in treacle and special effects to cover the bigger leaps in logic. Reader, I have thought long and hard about the worst of it, so let’s leave that alone…

iii. The Escape Clause


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All of which made The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause something of a relief at the end of an intensive rewatch. Yes, the film that Mark Kermode likened to ‘tertiary syphilis’ in his flappy review is, on balance, less head-screwy than its predecessors and even a little bit more entertaining.

This isn’t going to be a popular take, but I’m not here to make friends – I’m here to try and make the Santa Clause trilogy make sense.

It’s aiming low with its riff on It’s A Wonderful Life, but the tone is fairly well established by now – with fewer concessions to a suburban America setting in between episodes at the North Pole, it’s free to be a bit zanier and sillier in that world. The mighty Martin Short livens things up considerably as the villainous Jack Frost, enacting the kind of plot that would emerge fully cooked in DreamWorks’ criminally underseen Rise Of The Guardians a few years later.

Plus, for all of the reasons listed earlier, it’s gratifying to see there are multiple scenes where the cast of Little Miss Sunshine (Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin play Carol’s father and student, respectively) ask Mrs Claus point-blank if she’s alright and needs help. (“Are you held against your will?” her concerned dad asks in one of those bits that’s funny cos it’s true.)

But the actual Escape Clause renders moot everything we’ve seen up to this point. The insidious Jack discovers that every Santa has a snow-globe they can use to time-travel back to the point where they put on the suit and change history. After tricking Scott into invoking this clause, Jack goes back with him to 1994 and steals the suit for himself.

These aren’t our rules, they made this rod for their own backs, but both of the previous films hinge on Christmas magic being governed by rules of succession and, er… forced marriage. But this story (again written by Decter and Strauss) sends an unwilling Scott where Shrek, Kermit the Frog, and yes, George Bailey have gone before by showing him what Christmas would be like if he’d never become Santa.

The answer, hysterically for a film like The Santa Clause 3, is that it would become crass, commercialised, and exploitative in a way that Tim Allen could just never support. Short’s narcissistic Jack Frost turns the North Pole into a tacky resort, giving us a case for the defence in the repeated assertions that any Boomer like Scott can just walk into this job and be the best ever.

I’m no solicitor, but it occurred to me at this point in my binge-watch that it’s almost like they’re making these clauses up as they go along. But even in an instalment that skimps on the contractual gubbins, there’s no shortage of horror. We wouldn’t be the first to observe the madness of this Candyman­-like interior design:

Once upon a time, all three Santa Clause films charted in the top 10 highest-grossing Christmas movies ever, but each instalment received a frostier critical and commercial reception. They’re not legal thrillers, but I think on, all the evidence available, they may well be legal horror films. And who knows what terrors the forthcoming Santa Clauses series will wreak across its six episodes.

Maybe you haven’t seen these or revisited them in a while, but if you do decide to do what I did and watch them all again, then I wish a Merry Christmas to all, and to all… good luck.

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