From the Golden Age of Hollywood to the present halcyon days of CGI and motion capture, one thing has always been a constant with moviemaking despite the era or season — Movie Santas. They always show up near the holidays, and most of the movie Santas are convincing at sharing the Yuletide spirit.
What began with Santa’s debut in film with the 1930s “talkie” The Unholy Three, a play on the Wise Men no less but involving a jewelry heist on Christmas Eve, has become an institution of applying Kris Kringle in every fashion a child could — or would never dare — imagine.
Given the festivities in today’s theater, we decided to tackle the most Yuletide of chores and select the top movie Santas in motion picture history. If you are a ho-ho-ho for the holiday movie, you’ll agree with all of these and have a choice of your own.
But before we begin, some honorable mentions to get you in the spirit:
Dan Aykroyd, “Trading Places”
Jeff Gillen, “A Christmas Story”
Paul Giamati, “Fred Claus”
10. David Huddleston, “Santa Claus: The Movie”
Does Santa look familiar there? This list of best movie Santas must start with a guy who portrayed the image of holiday cheer and would later become a certain Lebowski (yes, that Big one is this guy). Another reason this is deserved inclusion on this blog is that Ilya Salkind made this film…after she was a co-producer of the Christopher Reeve O.G. Superman films. “Santa Claus: The Movie” is about Patch, a diligent but misunderstood elf played by Dudley Moore, but David Huddleston’s beckoning holiday chuckle is always present. You could say the holiday dude abides in this one.
9. Danny Elfman, “A Nightmare Before Christmas”
Okay, so for some people, “Sandy Claws” was an abomination, but if you saw this movie, don’t even try saying you don’t remember Jack Skellington in Danny Elfman’s portrayal of this one of the movie Santas in history. Yes, he was an actor too. The dude is multi-talented (like his brother Richard, lead singer of the ’80s group Oingo Boingo — good trivia for the holidays). And despite what the Pumpkin King should be doing this time of year, he sets out to save Christmas and Halloween together. Hey, maybe this is the reason department stores can’t wait to stock for the holidays in mid-October?!
8. Alec Baldwin, “Rise of the Guardians”
Understandably, this will ring the Cancel Culture alarm considering what Alec Baldwin is facing these days, but his inclusion in a list of movie Santas is a must. His voice-over work in “Rise of the Guardians” made that film. In one of the most original takes on holiday movies, we have ‘SANTA’ — not the man, but a mission to battle the nightmare king. Nerds everywhere should have appreciated this, namely if they like the Avengers or Justice League in the comics. This is the Yuletide fairy tale version of those swashbuckling superheroes, and this fez-wearing captain of the USSR hockey team is fantastic. Who would have thunk it?
7. Billy Bob Thornton, “Bad Santa”
Not all mall and movie Santas are the same. Admit it: You knew growing up that all parents secretly believed they were like Willie T. Stokes, a washed-up, cantankerous criminal who is trying to scam people out of ancillary Christmas cash played by Billy Bob Thornton. Then, he ends up like that dirty uncle we all meet at family reunions. And then there’s Marcus (Tony Cox), his pint-sized friend disguised as what else? A crude elf who somehow keeps Willie in line right through the holidays. It’s crass and so cool. This is a coal-filling stocking stuffer to watch.
6. Tom Hanks, “The Polar Express”
Although Andy Serkis hadn’t yet perfected motion-capture by the time this was released in 2004, “The Polar Express” and this one of the movie Santas is still nothing but magic. Most people who have seen this scene know the slow-motion appearance of St. Nicholas (also played by the great Tom Hanks) makes his enigmatic appearance and hypnotizes not only the characters in the film but also the rest of us watching. And when he says to that punk kid to “Cool it,” we come to believe this is a great movie and that it is a great Santa. Well, most of us.
5. Kurt Russell, “The Christmas Chronicles”
If you haven’t seen this Netflix original and its sequel yet, what in the elf is your problem?! This is one of the movie Santas with swag — he jams in jail, reveals why he has such a big hat, shows off his knowledge of every child in the world, and oh yeah… wait until you see Mrs. Claus. This version of Kris Kringle (that’s Mr. Kurt Russell) teeters on the nice and naughty list himself. One of the best and most “realistic” versions of the age-old tale in a long while. The original was an instant classic, and the sequel didn’t lose much ground.
4. Sir Richard Attenborough, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994)
What is remarkable about this definitive holiday movie from the late 1940s is that it did not need a reboot, sequel, edits, or anything. The original and that selection of movie Santas were perfect (as you will see in a couple of spots). Nonetheless, what Sir Richard Attenborough (whom you may remember from “Jurassic Park“) does for Kris Kringle in this movie may make you reconsider revisiting your childhood.
NOTE: Every child deserves to know the holiday spirit, even if carols and joy can’t be heard. For some unforetold reason, 20th Century Fox sucks because the best scene in the movie is about a deaf girl and Santa is on lockdown from YouTube. You must see this scene. Indeed, it is experienced—pure magic.
3. Ed Asner, “Elf”
Who knew when professional goofball Will Ferrell starred in a holiday movie, it would be that good? It is, and among movie Santas, Ed Asner is a gift. “Elf” was an instant classic because Asner lights up the big screen with a tangible and humble version of Santa Claus, vexed by the lack of spirit in the world. To help fuel his busted sleigh, Santa relies on the songs of a new elf. Only Santa could inspire that kind of misty-eyed joy. This leaves most of us, of any persuasion, to say nothing more eloquent than “That Santa is just so cute.” The old curmudgeon is the new lovable Santa Claus to be appreciated for years to come.
2. Tim Allen, “The Santa Clause”
Has there ever been a more salient Christmas truth than “Seeing isn’t believing, Believing is seeing?” The story of an ordinary dad becoming the extraordinary Father Christmas deserved a trilogy, even if it was one film too long. There’s another truth with these movies — dreams come true, even if you aren’t asleep. Tim Allen may be the ‘Home Improvement’ guy or ‘Buzz Lightyear‘ to most, but if you love Christmas movies, he is Scott Calvin — the premiere Santa Claus.
1. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Imagine some guy playing Santa Claus winning an Oscar for it? That’s precisely what happened to 71-year-old Edmund Gwenn when he majestically portrayed Kris Kringle. (He’s not now 71; he was then.)
And if that alone doesn’t make Gwenn the most prolific among movie Santas, this may. America needed to believe in something in a time of war, economic plight, and a nation bursting at its seams. Then came Santa, albeit set up to look delusional only to prove how wrong the rest of us can be. Watch this scene and note how easily paying attention to a child over an adult is to this man. The Sentinel from the North Pole is known for his warmth, and if you can’t feel that watching this movie, then buy an electric blanket you ice cube because not even the rosy, red glow of Kris Kringle’s cheeks could brighten your day.
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Since he saw ‘Dune’ in the $1 movie theater as a kid, this guy has been a lover of geek culture. It wasn’t until he became a professional copywriter, ghostwriter, and speechwriter that he began to write about it (a lot).
From the gravitas of the Sith, the genius of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, or the gluttony of today’s comic fan, SPW digs intelligent debate about entertainment. He’s also addicted to listicles, storytelling, useless trivia, and the Oxford comma. And, he prefers his puns intended.