Last year I watched the original A Miracle on 34th Street, and I liked it a lot. There was another in the 50s, and one more in the 70s before this version which came out when I was a boy. Of the two that I have seen so far, this one is easily the weaker. But it isn’t awful.
Everything wrong with this film is owed not to its cast, who are all committed and competent, or to its plot, which is largely the same as the original. Rather, the poop humor, the pedophile accusation against Santa Claus, the general enthusiasm with which it often aims for the lowest common denominator all the way from script to to direction…well that’s all pure 1990s, baby. There is simply no way a version of A Miracle on 34th Street could have been made in that decade and turned out any better than this.
The original Miracle seemed to know that it was more of a ‘general audiences’ kind of movie. This 1990s version makes the mistake of aiming for the attention of children despite the greatest part of its runtime being committed to scenes in offices and courtrooms. I think a lot of what feels so dissonant here has to do with that lack of a confident understanding of itself and who it is for.
And yet for as cringey or obnoxious or baffling as it may sometimes be, it isn’t a total waste. Our darling Richard Attenborough is giving his best as one of the finest Santa Clauses to ever grace the silver screen, and a young Mara Wilson is doing the best she can with the role she was given. The rest are all there, and the only one who sticks out as truly egregious is the man who plays the initial drunkard Santa, who is replaced by Attenborough early on.
I think the story is weaker without the Macy’s–Gimbels rivalry, though. Here we get Kohl’s versus The Evil Department Store Run By A Real Nazi, and while that–like everything else–would work in a world where the original Miracle didn’t exist, we do live in a world where the original exists. In that film, the inclusion of a rivalry between two very real businesses helps to ground the film and us with it, setting the stage for the thematic conflict: is Santa Claus real, or isn’t he?
The first film sticks the landing, and drags even the most curmudgeonly among us to a place where even if we are grown and wise, we can smile and nod along at the notion that yes, of course Santa exists. In this movie, however, the drag is perhaps more a kicking and screaming affair, where by the end we reach a conclusion we saw coming from a distance but never agreed to embrace.
It just isn’t moving like the original. It doesn’t have the same sincerity or sweetness. As I said: in a world where the original didn’t exist, this might have earned a place as a real Christmas classic. But we live in the real world, where this also-ran seems to have been forgotten to time as nothing but the last entry in an often remade franchise. There will surely be more to come, and they will surely be even further afflicted with plasticity and cynical self-awareness, which is the zeitgeist of the modern movie landscape. Fortunately, we still exist in a world where the original Miracle is available to view, and when that day comes, we will have it to turn to.
I’m giving the 1994 remake of A Miracle on 34th Street a 5 out of 10 on the GBU holiday-adjusted rating scale, and calling it Good, but with an awful lot of asterisks attached.