After largely abandoning made-for-TV movies, NBC returns with this misguided live-action update of a 32-year-old animated Rankin-Bass spec. Seemingly made for (and perhaps by) those who have hit the eggnog too hard, the result is a peculiar holiday yarn can’t decide whether it wants to be heartwarming or camp. Christmas sentimentality is surely ripe for satire, but this semi-sour, semi-sweet two hours isn’t really for kids while lacking adult-level production values or wit. Stirred together, it makes for a dreary porridge apt to leave the average viewer feeling as depressed as Santa professes to be.
In some respects, “The Year Without a Santa Claus” plays like a 1970s throwback, featuring plenty of semi-star talent with NBC ties, including “Saturday Night Live’s” Chris Kattan, “My Name Is Earl’s” Ethan Suplee and “Queer Eye’s” Carson Kressley. All that’s missing is Gavin MacLeod in a white suit.
Based on the Phyllis McGinley story, the premise finds Santa Claus (a padding-free John Goodman) lamenting the over-commercialization of Christmas, as embodied by devious head elf Sparky (Kattan), who insists the old boy must “keep up with the times.”
When Santa starts musing about retiring to Mythopolis (an adult-living community for mythological figures), two of his elves, Jingle (Suplee) and Jangle (Eddie Griffin), embark on a Christmas-saving journey to South Town, hoping to reignite the holiday magic by inspiring a neglected young boy, Iggy (Dylan Minnette, equipped with a Linus-style lithp), to believe in Santa.
Along the way, there’s a musical number involving winter and summer brothers Heatmiser (Harvey Fierstein) and Snowmiser (Michael McKean), who are integral in bringing snow to balmy South Town; and a run-in with their mom, Mother Nature (who else but Carol Kane?). Ultimately, Santa himself must reach into his bag of tricks to rescue his wayward elves, rediscover the Christmas spirit and thwart Sparky’s plans to supplant him.
Directed by Ron Underwood, the movie’s tone flits all over like a drunken reindeer, including what appear to be purposely cheesy, Saturday-morning production values (the project was shot entirely in Louisiana) resembling something out of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”
As a full-blown goof, the movie might work a bit better, but as is, gobs of schmaltz get ladled on toward the end, when the music alone risks triggering a diabetic coma.
Lord knows there are never enough good holiday perennials, but “The Year Without a Santa Claus” plays like a bah-humbug effort all around — made with a too-hip attitude highlighted by cameos featuring Kressley (as Santa’s personal dresser), Dr. Laura Schlessinger (dispensing elfin advice) and fitness guru Jack La Lanne (as Hercules!). Only Goodman, and in her fleeting time Delta Burke as Mrs. Claus, deliver any warmth, while the Grinch apparently absconded with the comedy.
Perhaps NBC should consider a live-action “Frosty the Snowman” penance, but if this is the best Christmas movie the net can deliver, a year without isn’t such a bad idea.