With a title like “Becoming Santa,” Jeff Myers and Jack Sanderson’s crowd-pleasing new film sounds like a Hollywood comedy about a regular guy who takes on the role of Santa Claus. And that’s almost what it is, minus the Hollywood part, but don’t confuse this for a Tim Allen vehicle. Instead it’s a wonderful documentary about the Christmas mascot and what it takes to represent him to kids — sorry, I mean children — all over the world.
Sanderson, a former producer’s assistant, writer and voice actor for Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” produced the doc and appears as its protagonist in the typical experiment-format narrative. Another name for the film could have been “Santa Claus Me,” as the man attempts to rediscover the holiday spirit by dying his hair and beard, dressing up, taking a special course (where you can’t say the ‘k’ word: “kids”) and then eventually playing Santa for special events and charities.
Along the way, as these sorts of documentaries are best to do, “Becoming Santa” sprinkles about the history of and facts on its subject matter. Think you know all there is to know about the origins, controversies and cultural depictions of Saint Nicholas, aka Sinterklaas, aka Father Christmas? There is probably much you’re unfamiliar with, particularly the bounty of info provided by a jolly old Civil War historian and details of the first department store Santa. Not everything is covered, for sure, but it still provides a great scope of background on the legendary character.
And as far as characters are concerned, Sanderson is an amazing host and hero for a film. He’s hilarious, intelligent, honest and just sardonic enough to be a perfect observer and participant in the whole affair without veering toward Grinch/Scrooge territory. It is probably because he thinks what he’s doing is silly and uncomfortable that he manages to make the most of it, seemingly becoming the greatest Santa you’ve ever seen. And like most true cynics, he does have a deep down love for people, especially the young ones.
Recently a fellow critic jokingly confused “Becoming Santa” and “Being Elmo,” but while they shouldn’t be mistaken for each other they can be considered together. They’re an interesting pair of docs, because they’re both about characters who children love and believe in, and they each separately kind of pull us out of the magic by focusing on the origins and background workings of these fictional "celebrities" (Santa is likened to the Beatles at one point, and I’m certain Elmo has been also). I suppose “Becoming Santa” could play well to whole families, much like “Elmo,” but in each case, how hard it must be to explain the men behind the curtain.
Of course, adults will appreciate the film best and maybe get a little nostalgic for when they still believed in Santa. The doc’s tagline is “you will believe…again,” and I accept this, though I think it’s more like “you will believe…anew,” because it’s a different sort of belief as a grown viewer. More than believing in the guy, you will believe in the spirit and the idea of Santa Claus, which is to believe in the spirit and idea of love and goodwill. If you also get teary-eyed during the segment on the USPS “Operation Santa” program, I admit I was there, too, and I’m even feeling more emotional about it after reading about the Post Office’s financial troubles today.
Before watching “Becoming Santa” I was grumpily scoffing at the sudden onslaught of Christmas decorations, advertisements and other holiday paraphernalia that began just two weeks ago (minus the new “Harold & Kumar” movie, which I enjoyed). Afterward and ever since, I’ve felt a lot more joy, not just in response to the premature festivity but in general. If you're feeling a “bah humbug” coming on anytime soon, do yourself a favor and watch this doc. Don’t worry, Sanderson and I are probably still with you overall in terms of reason, but it won’t hurt to break a smile for a little appreciation of the season.
“Becoming Santa” is now available on iTunes and VOD.
Recommended If You Like: “Super Size Me”; “Being Elmo”; “A Christmas Carol”