'Tis the season to deck the halls and watch your favorite holiday movies full of merriment and joy. It's a sure way to kindle the warm and fuzzy feelings that are more readily available at this time of year. And when the movies are focused on Christmas, you can bet on one other thing: An appearance by jolly old St. Nick himself, Santa Claus.
While many performers have played the character over the years, a few are always atop our our “nice” list. Below is our list of the very best on-screen Santas – including what makes them so magical.
Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)
When THE SANTA CLAUSE was released in 1994, it was meant to be released by Hollywood Pictures, Disney’s more adult-oriented shingle. But an early test screening revealed that the film would play well with families. Some last-minute additional photography was arranged, the movie moved under the Disney umbrella, and a surprise franchise was born. (SANTA CLAUSE 2 hit in 2002, and SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE opened in 2006.) The first movie, which features Allen as a man who accidentally kills Santa and is cursed to take his place (it’s a lot gentler than it sounds!) is still a total hoot. Throughout the series, Allen’s committed, hilarious portrayal of Santa Claus shines. Bonus suggestion: watch Allen’s other Christmas comedy CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS, if only for the scene where he has Botox and tries to eat fruit. Trust us on that one.
Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
The MIRACLE ON 34th STREET remake, co-written and produced by the legendary John Hughes, is sort of underrated. It’s the kind of glitzy remake that studios did so well in the '90s, with warm, honeyed photography and a strong, sentimental storyline that borrows enough from the original while maintaining a modern and contemporary feel. The highlight of the entire endeavor is Sir Richard Attenborough’s performance as a department store Santa, based in the fictional and Macy's-like Cole’s. Warm and full of grace, his performance acts as the emotional center of the movie. Ultimately, Attenborough’s performance that is the one thing in the movie that feels truly miraculous.
Tom Hanks in The Polar Express (2004)
In THE POLAR EXPRESS, the intricately-animated motion-capture marvel from Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks plays a whopping 7(!) roles, including Santa Claus himself. As the big man himself, Hanks totally transforms (with the help of some computer animation magic) but is still instantly recognizable – he has all the sweetness and authority you’d expect, plus mischievous elements that give his Santa some much-needed edge. The performance is an even more incredible feat when you factor in all the other roles he played in the story.
Ed Asner in Elf (2003)
ELF has become an unlikely holiday classic for a few reasons, and one of the biggest is the uniformly excellent cast assembled by director Jon Favreau. Will Ferrell, James Caan, and Bob Newhart are all sensational, but the biggest stroke of genius was casting Ed Asner as Santa. In the years since his role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" he has only become more interesting and more cantankerous and that makes him perfect for this movie. He makes us believe that Ferrell would be welcomed into the North Pole and has enough gruff grandpa energy to make his job visiting all the kids in the world on one hectic evening still feel like work. Asner is also a key reason why the rousing finale works so well. He sleighs. (Get it?)
Paul Giamatti in Fred Claus (2007)
Vince Vaughn reunited with his WEDDING CRASHERS director David Dobkin for FRED CLAUS, this time playing Fred Claus, Santa's older brother. Paul Giamatti (outfitted in an elaborate suit and a winning wig/beard combo) really steals the show as Santa Claus. Rarely has Santa been this annoyed and remained so charming, and the interplay between Giamatti and Vaughn (with their competing comic timing) is a lot of fun. If you’ve never seen FRED CLAUS, it’s pretty silly but has a shot at becoming a new dark horse Christmastime favorite.
Ed Ivory in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Another wonderful animated Santa Claus that we can’t help but love is from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. First of all the look of this Santa is so great; his exaggerated figure and long white beard are straight out of Tim Burton’s notebook. The vocal performance by Ed Ivory adds so much; you believe that he is a holiday parental figure that, while subdued, will eventually break free and clean up the mess that Jack Skellington has made of Christmas.
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All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, 20th Century Studios, Paramount Pictures, New Line Cinema.