TV Preview

The Remake With Less Depth Than the Cartoon

John Goodman and Delta Burke in the sorry
John Goodman and Delta Burke in the sorry "Year Without a Santa Claus." (By Paul Drinkwater -- Nbc Universal)
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

Hoping to forge a new holiday classic with "The Year Without a Santa Claus," NBC poured cash into inspired casting, luring John Goodman to play Santa, and Broadway star and gay icon Harvey Fierstein and comedians Eddie Griffin and Chris Kattan for supporting roles.

So the movie, an update of a 1970s animated classic, seemed full of potential for cheeky laughs. But this sleigh, with its message of true Christmas spirit in an era of crass commercialism, is weighed down with inanity from its first scenes. It's as if the creators blew all their cash on the cast and underestimated viewers' ability to spot the places they'd skimped: cheap soundstage production, poor direction -- Delta Burke looks plain lobotomized as Mrs. Claus -- and gaping, lame writing.

Directed by Ron Underwood ("City Slickers" and another new holiday television flick, the Jenny McCarthy movie "Santa Baby"), "The Year Without a Santa Claus" has Santa throwing up his hands in defeat in the face of Goth Christmas toys, Santa haters and conspicuous consumers. When he refuses to do his annual duty, Kattan's irritating head elf, Sparky, clearly suffering from a Napoleonic complex, can't wait to grab the reins as Santa 2.0 -- a leaner, meaner Saint Nick. Meanwhile, the family of the mayor of South Town is quietly falling apart as the mayor's ambitions keep him from spending quality holiday time at home.

But the Thistlewhites of South Town are played by sub-sub-name performers, and the balance feels askew in scenes that don't feature the heavyweight North Polers. And among the stars, Burke drains the energy out of every scene she's in. This Missus is a Stepford wife, to be sure.

Not everything here is disappointing; surely, there are enough hip nods for kids to be entertained. Carson Kressley appears as a Santa stylist, and Griffin is a sucker for self-help babble and b-boy wear as the sly, slightly hip-hop elf Jangle. But at 9 p.m., the movie airs a little late for the crowd that might enjoy it most: the 8-and-under set.

"The Year Without a Santa Claus" also keeps intact the famous song sequence from the original, a face-off between the polar-opposite brothers the Misers. And though Fierstein's a little too literal as a raspy Heat Miser, Michael McKean ("A Mighty Wind," "This Is Spinal Tap") gives us the icy keeper Snow Miser with a pleasantly cunning twinkle. But the number also reveals the most about production gaps. The sexy dancers can't keep up with each other; they don't have the chops for a summer stock production of "Grease." And what constitutes "fire" in Heat Miser's world looks like little more than colored paper and light. Heaven forbid real flames melt all that greasepaint.

The best moments in "The Year Without a Santa Claus" belong to Griffin and Goodman. Though they're rarely in scenes together, they manage to give nice touches to their roles. But a few giggles here and there don't make this worth two hours of your time, especially when the one-hour original tells the same story without all the in-your-face hipness. You're better off waiting and catching the original animated "The Year Without a Santa Claus," already proven as a classic, Friday at 7 p.m. on ABC Family.

The Year Without a Santa Claus (two hours) airs tonight at 9 on Channel 4.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company