Gather ’round dear readers. I have wonderful news. There’s a new Christmas movie about to make its way into your hearts, and this one doesn’t involve Tim Allen (thank God).

No, this one is about Jack Sanderson, a portly, 40-something gentleman who’s lost his Christmas spirit after the death of his parents. Without a family Jack finds little reason to find joy during the happiest time of year. But instead of complaining and grumbling ‘ba humbug’, Jack decides to try to get it back by becoming a professional Santa Claus. Sounds easy enough, but as Jack soon discovers, Becoming Santa is no easy feat.

Anyone who loves Christmas, and I mean really loves Christmas, knows there’s more to playing Santa Claus than donning a fake beard and a big red suit. As Jack soon learns, there’s an enormous amount of work that goes into it, not the least of which is going through the painful process of bleaching his hair, eyebrows and beard, and attending Santa school to learn all the intricacies of becoming jolly old St. Nick.

The charming and funny documentary, directed by Jeff Myers, follows Jack as he goes through the evolution of becoming one of the most beloved characters of all time.  As he quickly learns, being a Santa is a huge responsibility and Jack questions whether or not he can handle it. Fortunately there are a surprising number of resources out there to help, often run by real-life Santa Claus’s who dedicate their time to helping others ‘s dreams come true. Take Susan Mesco for instance: a highly energetic, possibly insane, but supremely kind woman who runs the American Events Santa School. Looking a bit like a 50-year old Barbie doll, Mesco takes the men through the rigors of Santa training. From dealing with restless children, to the proper way to pose for photographs, to how to speak to children who ask for the impossible, she drills them over and over again to make sure that no child walks away disappointed (even tearing up at the thought).

Jack doesn’t set out to become an average department store Santa. He takes it all the way – from entertaining kids (‘scuse me, ‘children’) on the Polar Express – a grueling job if ever there was one – to attending a small town’s tree-lighting ceremony, to ringing bells for charity, Jack takes it all on, learning all the way that spreading good cheer is it’s own reward (good thing because it’s all volunteer based). And yes, it all sounds a little cheesy, but Myers never hits you over the head with it.

Aside form Jack’s story, the audience is also treated to a history of Santa’s throughout the ages, starting off with the original St. Nicholas and where it all went from there. Even for those who have no interest in these kinds of fairy tales, the stories and theories are surprisingly entertaining and informative. For instance, while I love those Christmas time Coca-Cola adds, I had no idea Coke played such an important part in the “creation” of the Santa we all know and love today. There are also interviews with a number of professional Santa’s (including a civil war Santa – who knew?). There’s nothing earth shattering there – they all want to bring joy to people – but it’s charming nonetheless.

As far as documentary subjects go, Jack Sanderson is #1 on the list. He’s funny, engaging, self-reflective, and honest. He’s charming enough to win over the kids and quick-witted enough to entertain the parents. He’s at his best when he doesn’t know what the hell is going on and has to wing it without breaking character.

When I first heard about this movie I glossed over it and made no plans to see it until friends convinced me otherwise. And it’s a good thing they did, because this is one of the sweetest, most charming films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a great alternative to some of the cheesy Hollywood fare that comes out at the end of every year and says a lot more about Christmas spirit than any fictional tale could. Becoming Santa has all the makings of a holiday classic – one that I sincerely hope a lot more people get to see.

Click here for more coverage of HotDocs 2011


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