This 'Miracle' won't convert doubters

November 18, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Forget "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." "Miracle on 34th Street" is John Hughes' Frankenstein -- a slow, lumbering beast that walks with the stiff-kneed, bolt-necked shuffle of something built out of corpses and animated by a double-A battery.

It is infernally slow. Its two treacly hours feel like years -- nay, decades. When you finally emerge from the theater, you expect to find that the seasons have changed.

Derived from a mysteriously beloved and grotesquely overrated 1947 film, it retells the meek fable of the time they put Santa Claus on trial for being nuts. George Seaton wrote and directed the original; he co-wrote this updated version with producer-mogul Hughes; Les Mayfield was hired to direct it with as little a personal touch as possible. All have done better, except for Mayfield, auteur of "Encino Man."

Seaton's original inspiration was to play the drama out against a milieu of big-store retail marketing, logical since in those days the big department stores were bulwarks of commerce and culture. His choice of venues was Macy's -- headquartered, of course, on 34th Street and sponsor of a famous Christmas parade on Thanksgiving Day -- and the movie watched as a practical and embittered store exec (Maureen O'Hara) tried to deny the magic of Christmas, particularly to her own daughter Susan (Natalie Wood).

She is much confabulated when her store's kindly but weird old Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn, in an Oscar-winning role) refuses to acknowledge the fraudulence of his position, maintaining that he is in fact the one true Claus, and is put on trial for sanity. Finally, lawyer John Payne must argue that Gwenn is Santa, not only to the state of New York but to O'Hara, with whom he is in love. The film, in this cynic's view, never had a patch of Frank Capra's much tougher, much darker, much more neurotic and much greater "It's a Wonderful Life," with James Stewart in one of his best performances.

No mind. What is important is that everyone in the 1994 edition of the Seaton story is less good than everyone in the 1947 film, and the updates that Hughes has worked add very little to -- and in some cases actually harm -- the film.

O'Hara's role is played by the professional Miss Priss of our age, the snippy Elizabeth Perkins. She is never easy to take and she is not easy to take here. The heroic, romantic lawyer is generic handsome guy Dylan McDermott, not a great loss since Payne was pretty much a generic handsome guy, too. Daughter Susan is played by adorable Mara Wilson, neither a plus nor a minus. But for Kriss Kringle . . . Richard Attenborough?

Maybe it's a film critic kind of thing, but I kept thinking of the awful movies this old gent has directed: "Cry Freedom!", "A Chorus Line" and the truly rotten and brain-dead "Chaplin." He just can't get a fella into that "ho ho ho" kind of mood upon which such a project utterly depends. I look at him and I'm thinking, "That $#+ 'Chaplin'!"

Aside from its slower-than-molasses-in-January pace, the movie also bumbles its big courtroom scene. Many will remember that lawyer Payne won his case in the movie's best stroke by pointing out that the U.S. Post Office was sending its Santa Claus letters to Gwenn, which acknowledges the U.S. government's recognition of his claim.

For some reason, Hughes does away with this, replacing it with a much less powerful device so that the court case ends on a decided note of deflation. If you're going to do courtroom scenes, you've really got to deliver.

Finally, the movie's gushy endorsement of materialism at the end left this viewer a little cold. For her efforts, little Susan is rewarded with a new daddy, a new brother and a huge, beautiful house in the suburbs -- an explosion of wealth that felt almost indecent. It had the queasy sense not of a child achieving happiness, a fair enough ending, but of a child winning the lottery. Bah, humbug.

"Miracle on 34th Street"

Starring Richard Attenborough and Elizabeth Perkins

Directed by Les Mayfield

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

Rated PG

... **

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