For many, finding out the truth about Santa Claus is an important first step of a ritual entry into adulthood. The experience differs from person to person, but for me it happened gradually and without incident. Around 7 years old, I reasoned that it was impossible for a character as absurd as the Easter Bunny to exist. A year later, I came to the same conclusion about the big jolly guy. I didn’t see my parents as deceptive, or myself as naïve – this exit from childhood fantasy was more like an induction, or the first of many doors opened into rational adult living. I preserved the fantasy as best as I could for my younger brother, and played along with my parents whenever Kris Kringle’s name came up.
My experience must not be unusual, as many children’s Christmas films deal directly with a similarly gradual onset of Santa skepticism – that moment where one’s imagination is put in conflict with the dawning truth that the world operates on particular rules that are impossible to break. Gravity, time, matter. In this way, such films imbue an adult and a child’s view of Christmas simultaneously by investing in the illusion while also showing its manufacture.
But these films (as children’s Christmas films will unsurprisingly do) ultimately demonstrate the impossible fantasy to be undeniably true, to the dismay and shock of enlightened skeptics like James Caan’s Walter Hobbs in Elf or Judge Reinhold’s Dr. Neal Miller in The Santa Clause.
And Reinhold’s Dr. Miller is perhaps Santa’s greatest cinema skeptic.
As a psychiatrist, Neal Miller (who our beloved publisher, Neil Miller, was retroactively named after) can reduce even the most fantastic of cognitive and cerebral phenomena to a set of empirical roots like stress, trauma, emotional struggle, or a chemical imbalance. When Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin begins to gain weight and grow hair at an impossible rate, Dr. Miller reasons it away as an erratic and desperate response to shared custody.
He tries with considerable effort to get Scott’s son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) to see the irrationality behind his belief in Santa Claus. Dr. Miller has devoted his entire adult life to his professionalization: when he “listens” to Charlie and Scott, he can’t help but to refer to their subjective experiences in invisible but still condescending air quotes. Sure, there are layers of requisite Santa skepticism amongst all the adults in the film, but Dr. Miller is the toughest egg to crack, and ultimately the most belated convert.
Neal Miller is a Man of Reason.
His profession is a development of an enlightened era. He is the embodiment of what it means to be an educated adult in an age of science and information. Yet when Dr. Miller blows into an Oscar Mayer weenie whistle and emotionally transports himself back to his childhood (which effectively ended at age 3), he accepts the existence of Santa Clause without much struggle.
Which is something of a surprise.
Of course, this easy transition back into the world of childhood fantasy is to be expected in a kid’s Christmas movie, but it’s a strange thing to witness when revisiting The Santa Clause as an adult. How is it that a man who defined his life through the study of a scientific method — who approached his entire understanding of the world and everything in it as based within explicable rules and reasons — simply accepts the sight of his wife’s ex in a flying sleigh handing him an antiquated toy as proof that everything he knew as a toddler spoke to the Real Truth of the World? Moreover, how does Dr. Miller accept this earth-shattering revelation with such composure and resignation, as if what he just saw didn’t bring into question his entire sense of purpose and drive as a deliberate and thoughtful grown man? How does he not rationalize himself into a corner, or diagnose his own indulgence in childhood fantasy as a delusion in need of institutional care? How does Judge Reinhold not suffer a crippling existential crisis at the end of The Santa Clause?
I can’t help but imagine an alt-universe version of The Santa Clause that picks up precisely where this film left off, which finds Dr. Miller reduced to a babbling mess, unable to cope with two contradictory realities, blowing into a tiny whistle day and night and writing “Scott Calvin” in a string of endless cursive on stale white walls. Or leaving his profession all together so that he can roam the earth searching for proof of the existence of other holiday-themed folk legends, posting blurry pictures of The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny on his tumblr page and self-publishing lengthy books that explain the existence of Santa Clause through pop-scientific studies ranging from the propulsive capacities of Arctic deer’s hooves to the winter solstice’s annual halting of the space-time continuum.
After all, if one unfathomable, reason-defying fiction is for real, then what else is possible? Certainly this isn’t a world made up of universal rules except for the existence of that one guy.
The drama of Christmas movies like The Santa Clause lies in the conflict between childhood fantasy and adult rationality. Yet while these films end up unequivocally in favor of the former, this doesn’t completely erase the resonance of the latter. The conflict still exists, even after (or specifically because) the problem has been “solved.” Beneath the heartwarming, effortlessly Disney-fied world of The Santa Clause is an untold story of a supporting character that endures a life crisis far more profound than any reinforcement of an existing fantasy could offer.
After all, Charlie simply happens to fixate upon what seems to be the one childhood fantasy that turns out to be true, and as a result his already-existing world of limitless possibility is validated, which prevents him from entering his adult years a conspiracy theorist in a state of prolonged infancy. But Dr. Miller, while something of a prick (see also: Walter Hobbs), has a difficult time never acknowledged by the film’s foregrounded heroes, even beyond the general shock to the system that the film’s ending revelation must give.
Just as Dr. Miller begins to make headway with his wife’s son, the boy’s absent father turns out to be Every Christmas-Celebrating Kids’ Hero. His wife procreated with Santa Claus ex-ante. And meanwhile, Dr. Miller will forever be remembered by Charlie as the guy who pursued a judge’s order that gave sole custody of Charlie to his mother, separating Charlie from his biological father who, again, is frickin’ Santa Claus. And worst of all, Santa only shows up when the kid wants him to, thus allowing Scott Calvin to always and only play the part of the hero father, while Dr. Miller and Charlie’s mother are left to do the hard, thankless work of parenting for what will no doubt be a complicated coming of age.
So next time you watch The Santa Clause and hear Judge Reinhold blow that Oscar Mayer weenie whistle, remember that it’s not the sound of a joyous reunion with one’s childhood that you’re hearing, but the desperate cries of a formerly grounded man about to enter the most poignant, difficult, and taxing period of his life.
And to all a good night.