Sunday, December 6, 2015

Film Review: Miracle on 34th Street

"Miracle on 34th Street"  *** (out of ****)

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1994) is probably the best remake of this story that could have made in modern times. Is it as good or better than the original "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947)? Of course not! But, you have to walk into the movie expecting that. How often are remakes better than the originals?

Some might ask, well, if I feel the remake is not as good as the original, why am I reviewing it? The answer is because I already reviewed the original, which I consider to be a classic Hollywood movie and like any good movie can be watched at any time of year. The original "Miracle on 34th Street" has an old-fashion charm and sentimentality that the remake could not match.

That is what separates the two movies and makes the original better. It was much more sentimental. The performances worked a lot better, mostly because you had wonderful character actors that added humor to their roles. You have to remember the 1947 movie had a cast that included Edmund Gwenn (as Santa), Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Jerome Cowan and William Frawley (best known for his role in the television series "I Love Lucy"). Some may not recognize those names but if you watched movies made in the 1930s and 40s, trust me, you would know their faces. You may recognize them from Preston Sturges comedies.

Though it is not fair to this 1994 remake to make so many comparisons to the 1947 version. A viewer must watch this remake and accept it on its own terms and pretend, as difficult as that may be, that we have never seen any other version of this story. When we do that, overall the story works.

In this version we follow Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) who works at Cole's Department store. Dorey is in charge of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, which Cole's is known for, and runs into a problem when the man hired to play to Santa Claus (Jack McGee) is drunk. He gets into an altercation with a passerby, an elderly gentleman who claims his name is Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough). Kris bears an uncanny resemblance to the image society has of Santa Claus. With Dorey in a jam, she asks Kris if he would be willing to play Santa in the parade.

What would seem to be a small gesture on Dorey's part will soon have a major impact on her life. Kris firmly believes he is Santa Claus and is determine to convince Dorey and her daughter, Susan (Mara Wilson) and a neighbor Dorey is attracted to, Bryan (Dylan McDermott) of the same.

Dorey has told Susan Santa Claus is fake, nothing more than a myth. Dorey's reasoning for this is because she does not want her daughter to believe in lies and fairy tales, only to face bitter heartache when she finds out the truth.

But is Dorey talking about Santa Claus or something else? Dorey was once married and divorced. There is no father in the picture. This has kept Dorey rather guarded. Are the "fairy tales" and "lies" Dorey is trying to shield her daughter from really about love and finding a good man? Is that the solution to Dorey's problem? If she had a man in her life maybe she would be happier and would allow Susan to have a childhood where she believes in Santa.

Meanwhile, across the street from Cole's is another department store called "Shopper's Express", which wants to run Cole's out of business and buy them out. One way to accomplish this the CEO of Shopper's Express feels is to hire Cole's Santa Claus, who is a big hit because he will tell parents where they can find toys at a cheaper price. But, when Kris Kringle doesn't want to leave Cole's and attempt is made to prove Kris Kringle is insane because he actually believes he is Santa Claus.

This leads to the famous courtroom scenes with a public defender (J. T. Walsh) trying to prove Kris Kringle is not Santa Claus and Bryan, acting as Kris' attorney, proving he is.

"Miracle on 34th Street" pretty much does everything you'd expect it to. It doesn't change the story very much, other than creating two fictitious stores, "Cole's" and "Shopper's Express". Us old-timers remember the original movie featured the department stores "Macy's" and "Gimbels".

But even though the story is mostly the same and the actors are decent in their roles, there just seems to be humor and warmth missing from this version. Remember in the original with Gene Lockhart as the judge and he is up for re-election, he desperately wants off the case because his grandchildren have stopped talking to him because he wants to put Santa Claus in jail. There is a great sequence between Lockhart and his campaign manager, William Frawley. Those little touches are missing in this movie. What it comes down to is the acting and the actors. I know I'm often accused of being an old-fashion guy with a sentimental prejudice for classic Hollywood movies, but, I'm sorry, the actors were better in the 1947 version.

The actors. especially the supporting actors, had a way of lighting up the screen. They had a strong screen presence with dominating personalities. That was one of the great things about the old Studio System, being able to see wonderful character actors.

"Miracle on 34th Street" is watchable. It is a "nice" movie. It hits all the marks it was supposed to. But, it doesn't feel like anything truly special. Families should watch it. Children may enjoy it. But, please, don't forget about the 1947 version That one is the real holiday treat.