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Peddling Religion on 34th Street

January 2nd, 2008

Before I left for the U.S., I failed to find the time to get a classic movie on DVD in Japan: It’s a Wonderful Life. I wanted to get it in Japan for three reasons: first, it only costs ¥500 there (about $4.50) because copyright has lapsed in Japan for films made before 1952. But the more important reason was that a copy purchased in japan would have Japanese subtitles, and so Sachi, my parents, and I could all sit down to watch it together. Finally, as the Japanese version was beyond copyright, it would be region-free, and so viewable on a DVD player at my folks’ house.

Because I failed to get it, I asked Sachi to in my stead. Failing that, I asked her to pick up Miracle on 34th Street. Well, she didn’t find Wonderful Life–but she did find Miracle–however, she got the 1994 version, on sale for ¥980. Alas, it was not region-free. And I figured that the remake wouldn’t be so good, as remakes usually aren’t. We didn’t watch it with my folks (I knew my dad would see the IMDB rating and balk–or worse, watch it out of obligation, and not enjoy it so much), but Sachi and I did watch it together a few nights ago.

The first surprise was the cast–they did a surprisingly good job casting the film (probably they got the people they did from the reputation of the story alone). The movie is brimming to overflowing with actors you’ll recognize–almost every role was filled with a name actor, including some bit roles. Richard Attenborough was the best possible choice for Santa Claus, and perhaps the major saving grace of the film. While he could not be expected to live up to the definitive performance given by Edmund Gwenn in the 1947 original, he did as well as anyone could have hoped to do. Mara Wilson (Mrs. Doubtfire, Mathilda) similarly could not compete with Natalie Woods’ performace, but she also did pretty well. Elizabeth Perkins (Weeds, Big) and Dylan McDermott (The Practice)were serviceable as the unbelieving mother and the faithful attorney-cum-father figure.

Other cast members stood out for their performances as well as for their name recognition. J.T. Walsh played the prosecutor trying to put Kris Kringle away; Robert Prosky (Mrs. Doubtfire, Veronica’s Closet) played the judge; William Windom (Star Trek, Murder She Wrote) played the affable owner of the good department store, while Joss Ackland (Lethal Weapon 2, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) was way over-cast as the villainous head of the competing department store (which may be why he went uncredited in the film, despite his being instantly recognizable). James Remar (Dexter, 48 Hours) and Jane Leeves (Frasier) played the agents of the competing store. Even Allison Janney (The West Wing) made a cameo appearance as the shopper who is swayed by Kringle to be a loyal customer.

The film itself was surprisingly well made, and not too disappointing. While it pales in comparison with the original (the original had much better dialog, for one), for a remake it fared decently–but only where it stayed faithful to the original. Where it tried to go original, it failed rather notably, and unfortunately, the film did so in two of the most important side stories.

The first was the mechanism which got Kris committed to a mental institution: in the original, it was the young Santa impersonator that Kris took a shining to because of his good heart; Kris got violent because the store’s psychologist fed the young man bad and hurtful advice. In the remake, that storyline was erased, and in its place, we got an expanded role for the drunken Santa that Kris replaced at the beginning of the film, who is hired by the bad guys to intentionally provoke Kris into violence.

However, the worst substitution was, both figuratively and literally, the deus ex machina for the film’s climax. In the original, we saw workers at the post office mischievously decide to unload all their unsendable Santa letters to Kris, inadvertently granting him the recognition of the government that gives the judge the excuse to also “recognize” Kris as the real Santa Claus. That ending had both a humorous and natural flow that worked perfectly in the story, and was not at all preachy or intrusive.

In the remake, however, this was replaced with a literal deus ex machina, culminating from an overarching religious preaching that pervaded the film. Where the original was enjoyably secular, the remake suffered from a theme of religious superiority that was annoying enough all through the film, but stood out painfully at the climax. Throughout the film, there were presentations of religion and faith, mostly delivered by Dylan McDermott’s character, that rather irked me. Instead of the attorney/boyfriend disapproving of the mechanistic mother’s depriving her child of a merry childhood fantasy, the remake’s attorney clearly disliked the mother’s religious non-belief, demonstrated by an early scene where he insists on saying grace where the mother is clearly uncomfortable with it. Later, the attorney excuses the mother’s disapproval of her child visiting the department store Santa to Kris by muttering the word “unbeliever” to him. As it had religious overtones, it lost it’s playful innocence and sounded almost like a damning or a name-calling–the word “heathen” would not have been too dissimilar in the same context. It all smacked of the same cluelessness some religious people have when they preach to people of different beliefs, and then can’t even detect that those people are annoyed and insulted–born from living too cloistered among other believers to understand other points of view. This is not even a “let Christians be Christians” situation, but instead a smarmy put-down of non-Christians that all too many Christians are tone-deaf to.

But the deus ex machina comes in the climax when the little girl interrupts the judge’s decision, and gives the judge a Christmas card with a dollar bill enclosed–with the words, “In God We Trust” circled in red felt marker. Bolstered by a bizarre million-person flash-mob in the streets, where New York comes to a standstill so that everyone can stand silent until they all cheer at high noon, this clumsy interjection leads to a flimsy argument by the judge that if the government can recognize god, then by golly, he can recognize Santa Claus. This solution lacked the humor and frivolity of the original, replacing it with a preachy and unsatisfying injection of religion.

Had they simply kept the young Santa impersonator, the incompetent store psychologist, and the letters-to-Santa elements of the original, this could have been a much more enjoyable film. Done as it was, it was still enjoyable for the most part, but was more or less spoiled by the in-your-face religious message splashed into the story. While the original may have had some of the same elements, it was far less proselytizing–one could see it as being about imagination and magic, rather than religion and god. No wonder that the remake is commonly included in “Christian Cinema” lists.

Note: We did find It’s a Wonderful Life, by the way–on Google Video, of all places, complete with subtitles (which, for us, transitioned into Spanish halfway through…).

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