And now I commend you to God and to the message of
his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to
give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.
I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. You know
for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to sup-
port myself and my companions. In all this I have given
you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ “
I wonder what Charles Dickens would think of “the true spirit of Christmas” film genre that he launched with the writing of his “A Christmas Carol” ? There have been dozens and dozens of Hollywood films about the “true meaning of Christmas,” this seldom involving any recognition of who “is the reason for the season.” Some of these films have been classic gems, such as 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street or, from the same year, The Bishop’s Wife, and some have been so abysmally bad that viewers gladly side with Scrooge and the Grinch. Disney’s DVD musical The Search for Santa Paws is the most recent entry to this genre falls somewhere in between these extremes.
With it’s colorful lyrics that appear on screen whenever the characters break into its simple songs, I would say that the film is aimed at preschool and slightly older children. Indeed, there are so many implausibilities, and a couple of holes in the plot large enough to sail our Pacific Fleet through, that any child over 8 or 9 is likely to turn away in disbelief. In spite of its many flaws, however, I found myself enjoying the film because of the charm, mainly of the young actresses who play orphaned friends, that occasionally I was led to forget how preposterous some of the proceedings are. Now to the story: Up at the North Pole, when Santa Clause is worried that the world’s children, and especially those in New York City, are losing their belief in him, he harnesses up his reindeer to fly down and investigate matters in NYC. He takes with him his “best friend,” Sandy Paws, a talking dog whose origin I will not delve into. (According to the press notes this film is a “prequel” to a 2009 DVD film that I have not heard of and am unlikely ever to see, Santa Buddies: the Legend of Santa Paws. Update: since writing the preceding I have read two reviews that say this film is far superior to the original, so I know I will never see the earlier one.) Leaving the reindeer in Central Park (yeah, everyone knows how easy it would be to hide a team of critters that large there for a week), Santa and Paws head for the toy store owned by his recently deceased friend Mr. Hucklebuckle. However, even Santa has trouble with Manhattan traffic. A taxicab knocks him down, causing him to lose his memory, and during the ensuing hubbub Sandy Paws becomes separated from him.
Meanwhile Jim and Kate Huckle have flown into NYC to receive Jim’s inheritance from his late Grandfather Hucklebuckle, the very same toy store that was Santa’s destination. Jim long ago had shortened his name (for obvious reasons understood by all but his family, I am sure). Kate is delighted by the store, antique cash register and all the old fashioned toys that drew upon a child’s imagination. Jim, on the other hand, can hardly wait to acquire possession so he can sell everything and return to his lucrative CPA business in L.A. He sees none of the beauty and wonder that his wife sees in the store, only that it does not look like a very profitable venture. Enter the grandfather’s lawyer Mr. Stewart (played by the only actor I recognized, the always reliable Bill Dobbs) who informs them that before the deed is turned over to Jim he must fulfill the will’s stipulation that he must first operate the store for at least one Christmas and show a profit. Thus the two are stuck in Manhattan for the rest of December.
Meanwhile still, a six year-old girl named Quinn is dropped off at a children’s home operated by a woman even meaner than the Grinch, Ms. Stout (Wendi McLendon-Covey). Whenever she catches a child with a toy, she confiscates it and throws it into a basement bin linked to the furnace. Nor does she allow Christmas trees or decorations at the home. She punishes misbehavers by making them sleep in the gloomy basement, and she spends most of the social services’ allotments on luxuries for herself, rather than on the girls.
Twelve year-old Willamina takes Quinn under her wing, and soon the two are good friends, with Will allowing Quinn to sneak out of the home with her at various times, one of their excursions taking them to Hucklebuckle’s Toy Store. Will does not believe in Santa, but Quinn does, so what do you think will eventually happen?
It is easy to see how these three stories will converge, and oh yes, did I mention that the Huckles, now managing the store, are childless? Also, guess what bearded amnesiac will wind up as their store Santa? (Ha, you must have seen Miracle on 34th Street!) There’s a lot of magic involved, even something at the North Pole called “The Great Icicle” that had brought to life the stuffed toy dog who became Santa Paws, plus a number of elves and several street dogs, with only those who believe in Santa able to hear the canines talking (and sometimes singing as well).
The title is a misnomer in that no one is really searching for the missing canine, nor is Paws the center of the story, this being a tale more like the Dickens classic, the humdrum Jim Huckle being transformed (and even Will), whereas the real Scrooge Mrs. Stout merely receiving her come-uppance. The songs by Brahm Wenger are passable, their main theme about love in the heart certainly being welcome.
The film’s G rating should reassure parents of young children, the latter being the ones who will enjoy and possibly return to the DVD because of the fun of singing along with the songs. However, a couple of scenes in which toys, and little Quinn herself, enter the bin and the latter almost falls into the furnace might be a bit intense for a sensitive preschool child, so parents beware. Best scene from a faith-values perspective is Santa’s taking a child upon his knee and turning the conversation around to asking what presents would the child like to give. Nice touch.
Available as a DVD or a combo Blu-Ray/DVD package, The Search for Santa Paws would be a fairly good gift for young children who already have the classic Christmas tales. Just don’t expect any child older than 9 or 10 to want to see it again.
For Family Reflection/Discussion The questions below are only suggestive, and, unless the DVD is used in a class rather than a home setting, not all of them should be used at the same time. Adults should not spoil the fun by being too didactic.
1. Ask, “What is your favorite scene?” What did you like about it?
2. Do you have a favorite character, and if so, who? Which ones seem to be the happiest—the ones who take from, or the ones who give to (help) others?
3. Ask the child(ren) what is “the true spirit of Christmas” ? Whose name (actually title, though don’t worry about this) is part of “Christmas” ?
4. Ask what word do we hear often in the songs (love). How is this a part of the “true meaning of Christmas” ? (Not to belabor the point or turn this into a Sunday School lesson, but you might work in John 3:16 here.)
5. As in all Disney cartoons, there is an outlandish villain(ess). See if the children can name and compare Mrs. Stout to others. (Such as Cruella De Vil; the stepmothers in Snow White and C
inderella; or the foster mother in Tangled.) What happens to her?
6. If you find that the children are not familiar with the origin of Santa Claus, tell them about it—at least as much as you think is appropriate (I am thinking of wee ones who, like Quinn, believe in him.) For some good background on his origins go to the History Channel’s website below. At the top it even features a number of videos, “The History of Christmas” being especially worth watching. http://www.history.com/topics/santa-claus 7. Ask if anyone remembers the scene in which Santa Claus talks with children in the toy store. Did he talk about what the child wanted, or did he talk about what the child could give to someone else? How is this “the true meaning of Christmas” ? You might talk about the words that Paul attributes to Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” What does this mean?