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‘Miracle on 34th Street’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 18, 1994

Turn on the TV any time during the Christmas season and chances are better than even that "Miracle on 34th Street" will be playing. The 1947 classic -- in which Macy's store Santa Edmund Gwenn convinces a very young Natalie Wood he's the genuine article -- has maintained an incredible shelf life of almost 50 years.

Things don't look quite so everlasting for the latest "Miracle on 34th Street." In fact, producer John Hughes should be grateful if his 1994 version (which he scripted with original "Miracle" writer/director George Seaton) remains in the public memory for more than 50 days. Here's a prediction, and you heard it in the Weekend section first: Hughes's not-much-of-a "Miracle," which creaks and trundles along like the heaviest float in the parade, will not be found on television (or its computer equivalent) half a century from now. If I'm wrong, please have pity on an 86-year-old curmudgeon whose three sons never call.

This lethargic modernization, which stars Sir Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott, may appeal to audiences because of the themes it labors for: the true spirit of Christmas, the mystique of Santa, children's desires for loving parents and so forth. But for the most part, the movie's a slow-moving, overblown, never-better-than-competent rendition of the original.

Perkins, special projects director at a department store (and it ain't Macy's this time), is an unbelievably callous single mother who thinks 6-year-old daughter Mara Wilson shouldn't believe in Santa Claus. Her sober parental designs are benevolently challenged by Attenborough (name of Kriss Kringle), the official Santa at Perkins's 34th street store, who eventually thaws the little girl's skepticism with his boundless cheer and his belief that he really is Father Christmas.

The story, in which Wilson's expressed Christmas desire is to have a new brother, father and home, lumbers through 114 minutes of exposition and protracted resolution: Perkins takes a while to warm up to sweet-natured attorney McDermott, the obvious candidate for New Dad. And in a convoluted takeover scheme, plotters Simon Jones and James Remar try to discredit Attenborough so the store will lose money and become an attractively cheap purchase.

Eventually, Attenborough and attorney McDermott go up against prosecutor J.T. Walsh in a mental-competency hearing, in which judge Robert Prosky must decide if the white-haired defendant is pere Noel or some knighted British eccentric appearing in a John Hughes movie. Actually, amid the seasonal innocuousness, Attenborough's performance is about the most stirring thing in the movie. A dead ringer for the North Pole tubster, he's sprightly, warming and self-assured as he chuckles heartily, charms children and cynics alike, and talks quite matter-of-factly to reindeer. But even if he passes Yuletide muster in the courtroom, all the personality and goodwill in the world can't disguise this movie for what it is -- or isn't.

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (PG) — Contains minor violence: Santa bonks someone on the head with his walking stick.

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