Ranking Cinema Santas: Part II – Animated

The Christmas season overflows with the chance for great listmaking. Whether it is assembling a baking order of goodies, compiling a list of presents you hope to find under the tree, or the Big Man himself finding out who is naughty or nice, lots of thought and heart goes into lists around this time of year. In that spirit, and in the throes of my rewatching all of my favorite holiday movies, I thought it might be time for Portland Film Review to get in  the spirit of Christmas list-making. Therefore, I present to you a two-part listicle event ranking my favorite versions of Santa Claus from the silver screen. Why Santa? Well he is the connective cinematic tissue of the season, and it never hurts to get a few extra brownie points during the season when he is working on that big old list. 

Tuesday was Part I, focusing on live action versions of Santa. Today is Part II, which digs into the animated and stop-motion examples of the Big Guy. Also, I’m limiting myself to eight picks here instead of 10 because I honestly feel like these eight  are the animated hall of famers. Instead of diluting that with filler picks, I’m just going to keep it shorter. So buckle up the boots and pull on your hat; it’s Santa time round two!

8. Tom Hanks – The Polar Express (2004)

The aura around Santa in The Polar Express is basically the same as that of the shark in Jaws (1975): you hear so much about them before you actually experience their full power. Of course Santa is not eating anyone or splashing about, but the whole build up around what Santa will be like once the children get to the North Pole taps into the same feeling  of suspense. So, when we do finally see Santa, a large and glowing figure that towers over the elves and children, he looks the part, and thanks to Tom Hanks, he also sounds the part. It is a small piece of the movie, but Hanks brings his constant warmth and kindness to the vocals and brings the spirit of the movie home as a result. 

7. Alec Baldwin – Rise of the Guardians (2012)

I am in the camp that sees Rise of the Guardians as a generally underappreciated entry in the wintery-but-not-exactly-Christmas canon of movies. It has a phenomenal voice cast, and Alec Baldwin’s work as North, the name given to the Santa character here, is great fun. Along with an animation approach that molds North into a burly Russian man, Baldwin turns his character into the model of that friend who is always a little wacky, but also has a heart of gold. Baldwin gives the biggest vocal performance in this movie, and it has stuck with me because it is so downright gleeful.

6. Edward Ivory –  The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas takes what we know of Santa and imagines what he would be like if he were forced out of his cozy Christmas world into the madness of Halloween. The character design starts this process by making Santa a caricature of the usual image, impossibly round and overly rosy, perfectly positioned to be a bundle of expressiveness when he is kidnapped and put through Oogie Boogie’s (Ken Page) ringer of torturous games. Edward Ivory matches the pitch and turns Santa into an unamused and growling old man who just wants to get back to Christmas. He is not a main feature of the movie, but the filmmakers sure make him stand out visually, which is a testament to the artistry and acting. 

5. Stan Francis – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

I have to come out and say it: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a tough look for Santa from start to finish. He drops the ball early on in terms of including Rudolph in the North Pole community and could have spared Rudolph from so much torment if he had simply chastised the other reindeer for being bullies. That being said, there is something interesting about having the chance to see Santa be the bad guy, and then come to terms with his failures by the end of the story. Stan Francis and the Rankin-Bass crew succeed in presenting an onerous Santa at the start, and slowly softening him as a supporting character so that we are primed to forgive him just as Rudolph does by the end. He is a secondary figure in this one, but as a major part of the plot, the performance is executed with aplomb. 

4. J.K. Simmons – Klaus (2019)

I missed this movie when it came out and watched it for the purpose of compiling this list, and I am so glad I did. Klaus is a wonderful dose of Christmas cheer and inventive animation that suggests a different origin story for Santa, one that sees the Big Man as a grieving woodsman brought back into the world by a selfish postman who ends up being a great friend. The animation here is along the same lines as Rise of the Guardians in that Klaus is a burly man, but there is a gentleness and tender touch that is all his own. J.K. Simmons amplifies this with a masterful vocal performance that follows Klaus as he changes from guarded loner to exuberant bringer of joy. I am so sad it took me an extra year to sing this movie’s praises, and it further confirms that there is quite possibly nothing out there that Simmons cannot do. 

3. Mickey Rooney – The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

For anyone wondering, The Year Without a Santa Claus is my favorite Christmas movie/special. The second we hit the Christmas season, you can find me endlessly singing the Miser Brothers’ themes. Yet, apart from that music, I come back to this one every year in large part because of Mickey Rooney’s take on a tired and downtrodden Santa. The idea of a year where Santa feels like Christmas is not worth it is more melancholy than most specials aim for, but the way it comes back around to restore the Christmas cheer is heartening in so many ways. Rooney captures this transformation as his vocal work moves from strained to jubilant, and the verses he adds to “I Believe in Santa Claus” are just lovely. 

2. Santa in The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman, both as a picture book and the short animation it inspired, represents the purist essence of Christmas to me. It captures the innocent delight of a child playing in the snow and having that snow come to life and show off the magic of the season. There is no dialogue, minus brief narration from David Bowie, but the animation of Santa in The Snowman cuts directly to the feeling that I yearn for every Christmas when I think of what Santa represents. Here he is a jolly and rosy old man hosting a Christmas party for a group of dancing snowmen and the young boy who the eponymous Snowman travels with. Santa has hardly two minutes on screen, but everything about the hand-drawn animation is perfect, and seeing him hug the young boy is a moment of watching  a potent childhood dream brought to stirring life. 

1. Mickey Rooney – Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

Yes, Mickey Rooney is on this list twice, and I will fight anyone who thinks he is unworthy of either slot. By my measure, Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town is the most affecting and memorable Kris Kringle origin story out there. Seeing him grow from abandoned child to spunky young adult and finally to the Santa we know and love is a pure shot of distilled Christmas spirit. The Rankin-Bass stop-motion team is always on top of its game, and the character design here matches splendidly with the dynamic range that Rooney brings to the table. His line readings, booming laughter, and ability to imbue this Santa with a dose of Errol Flynn energy as he works to deliver presents is a true testament to what can happen when animators work in concert with actors. Plus, if that were not enough, Rooney’s rendition of “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” is truly a Christmas all-timer. 

If you missed the first part of the list, make sure to go back and check it out! After you do, let us know what you think of both rankings by commenting on our Instagram, @portland_film_review, or Facebook, @Portland Film Review. 

Happy Holidays from all of us at Portland Film Review!

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