A year after it flopped, Fred Claus finally makes it to DVD, giving a whole new batch of viewers something to watch for Christmas. I'll stick with Christmas Vacation, thank you very much.
Fred Claus stars Vince Vaughn in his aspirations to do what his Old School colleague Will Ferrell did in Elf: be a part of a holiday blockbuster that appeals both to children and adults. Vaughn plays Fred Claus, the immortal and all-but-forgotten jealous, older brother of some big fat red-nosed guy named Santa Claus, who in this movie looks a lot like Paul Giamatti after a hot dog eating contest. After having a near-breakup with his girlfriend, played by Rachel Weisz, and falling on some financial hardships, Fred decides to take a trip up north to help out his brother as the big day approaches. Unfortunately, Fred does what Fred does best, and that is mess everything up - including the elves' productivity - unbeknownst that an auditor (Kevin Spacey) has arrived, threatening to shut down Santa's workshop due to efficiency concerns. Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins and Kathy Bates also have small roles.
Fred Claus isn't nearly as bad as I was expecting, and when you compare it to the Santa Claus sequels and a few other holiday-oriented films, it compares well enough. It certainly isn't as creepy as The Polar Express, despite what some of the early movie posters implied. However, when you take a look at other modern classics, such as Santa Claus, Christmas Vacation and Elf, it just pales in comparison. I've never viewed Vince Vaughn as the kind of guy who's suitable for kid's films; his fast-paced, rather obnoxious monologues work better in edgier, more adult fare. He always comes off as a bit of an ass, and frankly is best when he's in supporting roles. That being said, he does manage to use all of this to his advantage, as he gets to play an ass who ultimately gets to save Christmas. You just have to buy his character's complete selfishness for the first hour of the movie.
Unfortunately, Fred Claus isn't nearly as funny as hoped; there are a lot of jokes that fall flat, or scenes that are meant to be entertaining but are merely "shruggish." There are a couple random dance sequences that do nothing other than to prove that that screenwriter Dan Fogelman couldn't figure out how to fill his picture with meaning; there are just a lot of bits that upon reexamination could have been refined or cut altogether.
Without amazing comedy, the movie then falls back on its director to wow the children with a magical world in the North Pole, and David Dobkin fails miserably at that. While the North Pole is certainly fleshed out in terms of set design, there is nothing magical about it. Again, compare this movie to Elf (or the my much-despised The Polar Express) to see how movies have made the North Pole utterly goofy or awe-inspiring. None of the elves, including head elf John Michael Higgins, are especially entertaining or memorable; Banks makes for a hot elf, however. There just isn't much creativity in this movie, and it's a movie that really needs creativity. Dobkin needed to look at every scene and figure out some fun, goofy details to put in the background to make the North Pole - and thus Fred Claus - feel alive.
Given that the cast is pretty amazing (there are four Oscar nominees/winners in Giamatti, Weisz, Bates and Spacey), it's clear that Warner Brothers was banking more on box office dollars than the perfect movie. Had a little more care been given to the magic of the North Pole and the screenplay, Fred Claus could have been a pretty good Christmas movie; instead, it's just mediocre and will be forgotten until next year when the studio will undoubtedly release a new "Christmas Edition" DVD.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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