Friday, December 10, 2010

Miracle on 34th Street

I’m not generally a big fan of most Christmas movies. I could never get into the old claymation Rudolph; I don’t think I’ve even seen Frosty the Snowman or A Christmas Story; I’ve always despised White Christmas; and most of the less classic tales (Home Alone, Jingle All the Way, the Tim Allen Santa Claus movies, etc.) hold little appeal for me. It’s a Wonderful Life, is of course, an exception to the rule.

That’s why I’m a little surprised at my deep love for the 1994 version of Miracle on 34th Street. Going in it already has two strikes against it: one, it’s a remake of an older movie I didn’t really like very much (though to be fair, I haven't seen the old one for a very long time), and two, it’s a newer Christmas movie, which almost unfailingly means that it’s going to be either cynical or shallow, its message focused on being nice and feeling connected to family and friends.

But it’s not either cynical or shallow. The characters are surprisingly deep, fleshed out, complex. Dory, Brian, Susan, and Kris Kringle are characters in their own rights, with their own actions and motivations for those actions. Dory Walker cynical, aloof, scarred from a failed marriage, now passing on that cynicism to her daughter in hopes of defending her from life’s disappointments. Brian Bedford is the faithful, caring neighbor who has taken an interest in Dory, and cares about her deeply despite her hesitation to commit to a relationship. He loves Susan and Dory faithfully, and is endlessly patient and optimistic about winning Dory over. Susan is the bright, intelligent young girl who, despite her mother’s attempts to make her an “atheist,” senses that there may be more to the world than what her mother has said.

And then there’s Kris. He’s essentially a theophany – an incarnation of Christ Himself into the story. He makes no pretense of hiding his identity as Santa; from the outset, when he’s seen by the judge and his grandson as he crosses the street before the parade, he tells the boy he is who the boy suspects – Santa Claus. And that claim doesn’t change as the story goes on. While Dory hires him to play “Santa” for the parade and for Cole’s Department Store, Kris agrees, because he’s basically being himself, to a greater degree than they realize. He follows the higher goal of Santa to serve people and share the joy of Christmas by sending customers elsewhere for cheaper gifts, even though his employment by Cole’s would dictate this as bad policy. He plays by a higher law, and influences the company to follow that higher law as well. And in as much as Cole’s puts their faith in Kris as Santa, they are blessed.

But then he is betrayed – by a counterfeit Santa. He willingly goes to trial, purposefully failing a mental competency exam, and is taken to trial for the claims he’s made to be someone that he can’t be – Santa Claus. And then, in a moment of triumph, he’s released through the affirmation of the law that claims he is who he is – the one and only Santa Claus, the genuine article.

The movie isn’t without flaws; there are two that come to mind immediately. One is the competitor storyline, Victor Landbergh and his attempts to ruin Cole’s Christmas. It’s overly hokey, and compared with the genuine feel of the rest of the movie, seems to cheapen the story. It could have been far better executed with a little more effort. The other is the one that nearly ruins the movie for me.

During the trial, Brian Bedford says in his closing argument to the judge something to the effect of, “You have to ask yourself which is better: a truth that draws a tear, or a lie that brings a smile?” This seems to erase the entire impact of the movie. Rather than make it a movie about having faith in the unseen, it seems to suggest that we all know it’s not true, but it makes us feel good, so why not believe it? It contradicts the message the rest of the movie seems to convey, and makes me cringe every time I come to that scene. I have to assess, then, what the rest of the movie means in light of this statement. It’s inconsistent, and saddens me that the writer felt like that was the message they were conveying.

But I can ignore the comment. It’s the one slip-up which seems to reveal more about the person who penned the screenplay than it does about the message of the movie. And there’s nothing like Judge Henry Harper’s impassioned speech at the end of the trial confirming that Kris is indeed Santa to bring a tear to one’s eye. And the rest of the movie is just pure bliss, as Santa, now come into his kingdom, grants the deepest longings of those who have put their trust in him.

The parallels should be glaringly obvious to anyone who watches this movie. It’s the story of Jesus – the one who came down and lived among us, making ridiculous claims of being God Himself until He eventually died for those claims, giving Himself up willingly. Yet He rose again, declaring once and for all that His claims were true. Then He proceeded to restore all that was broken in the fall. And it’s the beauty in which the story parallels this that moves me every time I watch it. I see the people around Kris slowly wake up to who he is, and I think about Jesus touching our lives and causing us to realize who He is. I see Kris fulfilling Susan’s deepest wishes – a home, a father, a brother – and think about how Jesus fulfills those for us, becoming our brother as God the Father adopts us into His family. I see Dory losing her cynicism in light of the genuine love that Kris shows to her and Susan, and think about how that unconditional love is what we all long for, what breaks down all our wall and draws us closer to Him.

So take the time to watch Miracle on 34th Street this Advent season, and reflect on the ways that, like Kris Kringle in this movie, Jesus came and walked among us undisguised as well. If Santa can bring a family together, how much more can the Creator of the universe do?

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