John Hughes wrote five Christmas or Thanksgiving films between 1987-92, but with their adult humor and – in the case of the “Home Alones” — violence, arguably none of them were appropriate young viewers. His Nineties update of “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994) rectifies that. Directed by Les Mayfield and based on the 1947 film written by George Seaton, this “Miracle” is ideally suited for kids on the borderline between belief and nonbelief in Santa Claus.
And as an adult, I can’t be too critical of it. Granted, it does seem to take its time now and then to let children absorb the holiday messages, and it’s too heavy on the “Merry Christmases” and warm handshakes. But I wouldn’t describe “Miracle” as cheesy. The final courtroom argument cleverly makes a legal case for the existence of Santa Claus, as Judge Harper (Robert Prosky) acknowledges that some aspects of the US government are based on faith (namely “In God We Trust” on the currency).
The craftsmanship of the film is first-class. A nostalgic glow hangs over many moments through the lens of cinematographer Julio Macat, and composer Bruce Broughton gives us a mix of original score and pleasant versions of expected classics.
“Jurassic Park’s” Richard Attenborough makes for a lovable, kindly Kris Kringle (with real white beard!), but Hughes chooses to not play up the mystery of whether he is Santa Claus or a nut who believes he’s Santa Claus. He clearly is Santa, in the film’s reality – this is clear even without Kris’ mildly irksome references to other supernatural things such as the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and his invisible North Pole home. Thus we’re 100 percent on the side of defender Bryan (Dylan McDermott) and against prosecutor Collins (J.T. Walsh) at the institutional-commitment trial, not only morally, but also legally.
Seven-year-old Mara Wilson (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) is sweet and a little sad as Susan, who doesn’t believe in Santa because her single mom Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins) runs a truth-based household.
Although a few Grinches emerge from a rival store that’s attempting to discredit Kringle and his employer, Cole’s department store, “Miracle” focuses on pure-of-heart characters. It definitely has a Pollyanna approach to how easy a romantic match is: Bryan is all about Dorey, even though she is a practical workaholic. It’s a simple question of Dorey deciding to make a try at happiness. (And I suppose if your suitor looks like “Practice”-era McDermott and is consistently charming but not overbearing, you’d have to be won over, right, ladies?)
“Miracle on 34th Street” starts slow and drags here and there, and it could’ve had more depth if Hughes wanted to add it. But I like how it stays grounded; the emotional consequences of the trial for Kris, Susan, Dorey and Bryan ring true; adults aren’t asked to just go with an overly broad fable for the sake of the kids. And so Hughes has achieved an unquestioned family Christmas film – far from his best, but one that can be occasionally slipped into the rotation and lead to more smiles than frowns.