There’s no lack of Santa mentality in the remake of the Christmas chestnut “Miracle on 34th Street.” Writer/producer John Hughes has done minor and subtle tampering with the 1947 vintage holiday yarn, and that proves both an asset and hindrance to the new version. Pic should score upbeat, not quite boffo, seasonal returns and join the Christmas club of movies in perpetual year-end television rotation.
What remain enduring and heartwarming about the tale are its themes of hope and belief. More problematic is that while the time is now, Hughes and company have done little to contemporize setting, attitude or innovation.
The background tug of war has shifted from Macy’s vs. Gimbel’s to Cole’s — a Macy’s clone — and the generic discount Shopper’s Express chain. Otherwise, the portrait of a middle class, affluent non-ethnic America is unaltered.
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Through happenstance, one Kriss Kringle (Richard Attenborough) becomes the official Cole’s Santa. Not only does he resemble the Yuletide icon, he genuinely loves children, and through deed and action embodies the spirit of giving. And, oh yes, he just happens to be the real McCoy, so he says.
The trouble is that there are still folks who refuse to recognize the obvious. Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins), the Cole’s exec who hired him, is a prime example. Her steadfast belief that “truth is the most important thing” has also made her daughter Susan (Mara Wilson) a five-year-old doubter.
Mother and child become a significant test case for Kriss Kringle. Kriss’ trial is inadvertently helped along by the forces of evil from the discount store. They
And when the forces of evil from the discount store conspire to discredit him , his attorney (and Dorey devotee), Brian Bedford (Dylan McDermott), must prove him mentally sound. The bigger issue is whether the court is willing to suspend its disbelief.
Hughes and director Les Mayfield have wisely shifted focus to the Santa figure and have a superb St. Nick in Attenborough. Not only is he the embodiment of decency, he’s having a crackling good time bringing the character to Earth.
The young Wilson is the other stellar standout, displaying a wisdom and precociousness that enlivens material with a tendency toward the cute. Support work from Perkins, McDermott and J.T. Walsh as the prosecuting attorney elevates their otherwise familiar roles.
Though the direction tends to be predictable, this “Miracle” obviously comes with very handsome wrapping. Doug Kraner’s production design balances contemporary gloss with timeworn hues. It’s all lovingly bathed in light by cameraman Julio Macat.
The overall effect is enjoyable and cuddly like a warm fire on a cold night. It also harkens back to a bygone, simpler time. For those die-hard believers, it’s a bit disappointing that the filmmakers huddle in the past rather than press on optimistically into the future.