Fred Claus

Vince Vaughn and 7 year olds don't usually go very well together, so I was a bit skeptical of the parenting skills of the women sitting with 15 children in the row behind us at the movie theater. Sure, we were going to see a holiday movie, but still, it was rated PG13 and these kids were awfully young. But I enjoyed the film, for what it was, and I suspect the kids did too. It's skillfully double-layered, so that kids would only see Santa and some slapstick comedy and some elves dancing around. The adults, on the other hand, get to enjoy Vaughn's usual slacker antihero and a hilarious scene of Siblings Anonymous featuring Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton, and Frank Stallone. Because that's Fred's problem: he's always been overshadowed by and compared to his brother Santa. (Oh, and there's a little vampiric immortality clause invoked by the offscreen narrator to explain why the Claus family look almost the same today as they did back in their medieval hut.)

The main message of the film, oft-repeated and heavy-handed, is simple: there are no naughty kids, just kids who have been overlooked or misunderstood. So, target one is the old-school Santa practice of divvying up the list of kids into naughty and nice. Fred's guerilla tactics on behalf of neglected siblings shakes things up at the North Pole. But Santa's also fighting the black-coated "efficiency expert" (brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey) who wants to find any excuse to shut him down. So, like most Christmas movies, this one pits heart and humanity against cold misanthropy. Guess which wins?

But there's another interesting subtext that runs throughout the film, which serves as a kind of corollary to the updating of childrearing philosophy: it's very pro-exercise and anti-fat. For instance, when Fred's working as a repo man, he tells the little girl who complains that he's removing her flat screen TV that she should play outside and do sports. Everyone makes jokes about Santa's weight problem, and he's so fat that throwing snowballs gets him winded. And the simple toys the elves make in their all-nighter are athletic, too: baseball bats and hula hoops. It's clear that Santa's responsibility to eat all the cookies set out for him are what's hindering his health, and that maybe we should start putting out carrot sticks instead.

I'm not criticizing this element in the film -- it seems more positive than a lot of the usual holiday ideology -- but it was the fact that I could agree with it that got me noticing. Yeah, Santa's fat and probably heading into diabetes, and kids who get into fights are probably misunderstood, or mistreated at home. I accept those ideas without much question. I just haven't figured out what else I might have been absorbing as I watched this movie.

Other than the simple happiness of a holiday movie that actually is fun for grownups, even if it's about Santa.