The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (2000)

This isn't the first time we've reviewed an adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel. There's also a Rankin/Bass stop-motion version that's visually impressive but otherwise fairly forgettable. This animated version from 2000 shares one of those qualities, and unfortunately it's not the visuals.

For better or worse, this is a very faithful adaptation of Baum's book. There are a handful of changes here and there, but these are generally trivial alterations. The largest change was the decision to expand the role of Wisk, a fairy appearing in the last few chapters of the original, into a major character serving as comic relief throughout.

But the backbone of the story is mostly unaltered, which probably wasn't the best idea. While I'm fond of the original book, it's mostly due to some interesting choices around the setting, tone, and premise. I like that Baum wrote Santa into a world of fantasy and magic, as opposed to religious. The book is a fairy tale, but it's a somewhat serious one. And more importantly, it's left a mark on depictions of Santa that followed.

But the plot is virtually non-existent. Instead, the book - and this adaptation - follow Claus from his start as an orphaned baby adopted by a nymph through his discovery of humanity, his invention of toys, his trouble with the Awgwas, the invention of a bunch of Christmas traditions, and finally him being presented with the mantle of immortality - so he'll live forever.

It's structured like a biography, not a novel, presumably to make it feel more realistic. Because of this, there's not a lot of setup in the book.

The movie attempts to rectify that a bit by introducing the Awgwas in advance. The Awgwas, of course, are a race of monstrous creatures who plague humanity, sowing discord and misery. In the book, these don't show up until they're plotting to try and kill Claus, but the movie fits them in earlier.

The Awgwa's fate in the movie is... well... it's certainly less gruesome than the book. In the original, after they vow Claus will be dead in three days, the Ak, the Master Woodsman, assembles an army of fairies, knooks, ryls, and other woodland spirits, then wages a war against the Awgwas, who are aided by giants, goblins, and dragons. The woodland spirits are successful, and the Awgwas are wiped out.

The movie kind of reduces the intensity down to cartoonish violence. For example, instead of having their fire turned against them until they're burned alive, the dragons get turned into butterflies. Likewise, the last two Awgwas are turned into bugs who retain their personalities. You could even interpret this as a temporary spell if you wanted to.

This is more or less the climax of the movie, though there's a segment dealing with Claus getting the Mantle of Immortality just in time to ward off the very literal Spirit of Death (all pretty accurate to the book).

In short, this is a faithful adaptation of a book that doesn't have a plot. The book relies on world-building and tone, so in order to pull that off, you'd really need evocative designs and gorgeous animation.

Unfortunately, they seem to have farmed this out to the cheapest animation studio they could find, and the results are underwhelming. Honestly, "underwhelming" is being generous - this thing looks like garbage.

And that's kind of a shame, because if you squint, there are hints that some care might have been put into designing all this. If you examine the elements, they're extremely close to Baum's descriptions, but animated this poorly, it just looks like an afternoon cartoon from two decades before this was produced. Hell, they went to the trouble of hiring Brian Froud to design a character - what's the point, if they were just going to hand that over to a sub-par studio?

The original songs aren't any better. These are cloying and out of place. And of course they serve no character or story purpose: they're just here to burn run time.

The voice cast, on the other hand, is significantly better. Hal Holbrook, Jim Cummings, and Dixie Carter are all in this thing, and I think they do solid work. But, again, it makes no difference given the quality of the animation.

To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced it's possible to do a great adaptation of this material without changing it dramatically. And, frankly, there are already countless unofficial adaptations out there. Before they did an official version of this, Rankin/Bass's entire catalog was more or less lifted from aspects of this book and its sequel. Santa Claus is Coming to Town is particularly close.

A relatively close adaptation without the budget to sell the wonder and scope of Baum's world is really the worst possible approach. You're left with a movie with no story and a world you can't afford to create.

There's really just no reason to watch this.