In the decades since its release, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street has become just as indelibly part of the festive season as wrapping paper, mistletoe, overeating, and long lines at local shopping malls. Hollywood may believe that Christmas has become synonymous with comedies nowadays, but one merely needs to watch Miracle on 34th Street to understand what the spirit of the holiday is truly about. Light chuckles were sprinkled throughout the movie, but the most memorable feeling it leaves you with is that of warmth and charm. Thus, prolific writer John Hughes and director Les Mayfield took an audacious (ill-advised?) step in deciding to remake such a classic. Admittedly, this is not a terrible remake and it’s above the usual standard for remakes, but at the end of the day it simply cannot compare with the 1947 original, and merely comes across as unnecessary. Additionally, this remake adopts a more serious tone, with the focus more on corporate greed and corruption.
For this remake, Macy’s department store has been replaced with Cole’s department store, but not much else has changed. The movie commences as the white-bearded Kris Kringle (Attenborough) berates an inebriated Santa Claus who was hired to take part in the annual Cole’s Thanksgiving parade. When the drunk makes a fool out of himself, parade director Dorey Walker (Perkins) realises she needs an emergency replacement. Given the appearance of Kris, he is her first choice. Kris’ tremendous success on the parade lands him a job as Santa in Cole’s on 34th Street, where his uncanny ability to communicate with children and adults brings about a huge leap in holiday sales. Soon, Kris begins asserting that he is in fact Santa Claus himself, though nobody believes him (besides the legions of children who flock to Cole’s everyday to sit on his lap). Outraged by the newfound success of Cole’s, a rival department store sets out to put Cole’s out of business. This culminates in a legal trial that attempts to answer the question of whether or not Kris is actually Santa Claus, in which Kris is defended by Dorey’s friend Bryan (McDermott).
Like the original Miracle on 34th Street, the message here is one of hope for a society which has grown increasingly cynical and jaded. The message is that, even in these modern times, people can still look beyond their selfish interests to see and react to the needs of others. Kris is not just a red-suited man sitting in a department store who claims he’s the real Santa, but a symbol of all that is good about Christmas – a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish, hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives. The film argues that if people no longer believe in Santa and all he represents, the world will become a miserable, hopeless place. Dorey and Susan are both non-believers, as they deem Santa to be a myth passed down from parents to children. Yet, their lack of faith leeches away the magic of the season for them.
Believe it or not, there were two made-for-TV remakes of Miracle on 34th Street in the years between the 1947 original and this 1994 version. This reviewer is not opposed to remakes per se, but Hollywood needs to realise which properties should be remade and which ones should not. 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street was flawlessly executed, to the extent that it has warmed the hearts of movie-goers over countless decades, and its charm has only improved over time. It’s truly the definition of timeless cinema. Why attempt to recreate perfection? Sadly, the late and great John Hughes went the “bigger and better” route in writing this remake, and it tarnishes the magic of the story. As questions arise regarding whether or not Kris is Santa, Hughes’ screenplay tells a story of corporate espionage, with simplicity thrown out the window. Dorey’s daughter Susan (Wilson) asks Santa not just for a house, but also for a father and a brother. Kris is not only fluent in foreign languages, but he can also speak to the deaf using sign language.
In addition to the above, a few other changes were made for this version of Miracle on 34th Street. For instance, the resolution to the court case was altered, but altered for the worse. The entire internal logic of said resolution is untenable, and far less dramatically effective than the 50,000 letters to Santa that were delivered to Kris in the original. While this Miracle on 34th Street is not a line-for-line remake of the 1947 masterpiece, Hughes wasn’t bold enough to drum up any real plot or thematic expansions exclusive to this version. Thus, it struggles under the burden of sameness and predictability. Had the 1947 film never existed, this version might have made more of a mark, but with the original still out there, this remake seems completely unnecessary.
One of the greatest problems facing any remake is the fact that comparisons with the original are absolutely inevitable, and normally not in favour of the remake. Such is the issue with Miracle on 34th Street. Richard Attenborough’s performance as Kris Kringle is perfectly charming, yet he’ll always be in the shadow of Edward Gwenn who pulled off a landmark performance in the 1947 film that was jollier and infinitely more mysterious than what Attenborough accomplished here. In supporting roles, Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott are bland, and much less likable than Maureen O’Hara and John Payne from the original. Perkins is particularly underwhelming; she’s far too cruel and cold to win any sympathy. As Susan, Mara Wilson gives off a distinct “child actor” vibe that’s too cutesy and put-on for her own good. Wilson may look adorable, but she falls far short of Natalie Wood’s performance in the original film.
1994’s Miracle on 34th Street is not an awful movie – it was just unnecessary. Despite a few questionable choices by John Hughes during the writing process (there was no need for corporate greed and religious beliefs to be injected into a story which helps people realise the value of Christmas), the rest of the movie was executed fairly well. Director Les Mayfield handled the material competently, the production values are exceptional, the writing is not too bad, and the film is enjoyable. It’s just that with the superior original version out there, it’s hard to find much of a reason to watch this remake. Interestingly, the movie is also an unintended exercise in irony. It was obviously a Hollywood money grab, yet the film blatantly speaks out against corporate greed and doing things for the sole reason of gaining a few bucks.