Get Santa is probably the only Christmas family movie that asks whether could Santa be a child molester. The scene comes early in the film, when precocious moppet Tom has discovered a creepy, bearded man passed out in his garden shed in the middle of the night. Calling his dad excitedly, Tom explains that he’s chatting to a strange man who “wants to show me his plan,”
Dad’s eyes widen in horror, no doubt picturing his son becoming a victim of sick trouser-based rummaging. He hops in his van and burns rubber to the shed, threatening to beat the crap out of Santa if he ever so much as looks at another kid. It’s this skewed tone that fuels Get Santa, a film that can at least be given credit for taking Christmas cinema to bizarre new territory.
Our hero is Steve (Rafe Spall), who we meet as he’s being released from prison. He was a getaway driver, but having served his two year sentence he’s released on parole. Missing his family, he attempts to get back in touch, though his remarried ex-wife wants nothing to do with an unreliable old lag. Fortunately, his son (Kit Connor) still loves him and immediately calls him when he finds Santa (Jim Broadbent) squatting in his garden shed. Santa explains that he’s accidentally driven his new sleigh into power lines and crashed. Not only that, but his reindeer have been taken into custody at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Santa needs help; if he doesn’t get his sleigh and reindeer back then Christmas is cancelled.
A disbelieving Steve is quickly guilt-tripped into helping by his estranged son. Things rapidly become more complicated when Santa is arrested and held in prison; ending up with cornrows, marching around to Straight Outta Compton and calling himself Mad Jimmy Claws. Not to mention that Steve needs to visit his probation officer at 5pm every day or risk being thrown back into prison himself.
The overall effect is a weird tonal mishmash. Cutting between Santa banged up in solitary in some gloomy, realistic looking prison cell and a sparkly CGI Lapland is certainly an effective contrast, creating an intrinsically ‘wrong’ feeling. In the film’s best moments this pays off gangbusters. For example, the sight of Santa’s sleigh forlornly lying in a pile of trash in the woods is a neat image, encapsulating the central idea of dragging fairytales back down to the kitchen sink.
For every moment like that, there’s a few where you wonder what on earth writer/director Christopher Smith was thinking. I’m no traditionalist, but kindly old Saint Nick punching a prison officer in the face feels a bit unChristmassy, not to mention a climactic chase sequence in which a tommy-gun wielding Santa is yelling maniacally while firing on the pursuing cops. Granted, his gun is shooting reindeer shit at them rather than bullets, but it’s not particularly festive.
Some explanation comes from a cursory examination of the director’s filmography: a litany of low budget horror movies whose synopses contain phrases like “hunted down by war-crazed killers”, “bludgeons her past-self to death” and “impaled through the head with a serrated blade.” I don’t think it’s impossible for a horror director to slide into family friendly comedy, but Get Santa certainly feels like the product of someone whose primary instincts aren’t to give audiences the warm fuzzies.
The upshot of that is that Get Santa never hits the right emotional tone. There’s an inherent poignancy in showing a reformed ex-con trying his best to go straight in the face of fantastical circumstances, but despite me being extremely susceptible to sentimental Christmas claptrap, the film keeps fluffing its emotive blows. This primarily stems from the non-character of the young Tom, partly a combination of an underwritten role and partly because of the mildly annoying child actor, who never believably connects with Rafe Spall as his put upon Dad.
I feel a little guilty being so harsh about Get Santa; there’s myriad reasons it doesn’t work, but at least it’s trying really hard to do something different. At its core is a good heart; one sympathetic to prisoners and understanding of how miserable it must be to be banged up over Christmas. Not to mention that Jim Broadbent, the film’s one inarguably excellent factor, makes for an effective Santa.
I can’t see it ever becoming a stone cold holiday classic, but I’d much rather watch Christmas films like Get Santa than the execrable Nativity series.
Get Santa is a tonally tin-eared Christmas experiment, but at least it's a unique one.