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KIDS ON FILM

Youngsters of the '90s Believe in a More Modern 'Miracle'

November 17, 1994|LYNN SMITH | Lynn Smith is a staff writer for the Times' Life & Style section.

In "Miracle on 34th Street," partially updated characters replay the 1947 original in which a friendly, bewhiskered old man (Richard Attenborough) who believes he is the real Santa Claus winds up convincing a reality-first single mom, her precocious daughter, the mom's idealistic suitor, a judge on the tak e-- and most of Manhattan. (Rated PG)

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Since the young are genetically programmed to prefer whatever is New and allegedly Improved, it's probably no surprise that they unanimously favored this update over the Christmas classic that won three Academy Awards 47 years ago.

This time around, only a few principals (such as Attenborough who is British) speak with an upper-crust accent, child actors have learned how to be convincing, and most important, the movie is in regular color. "Colorized," apparently, just didn't cut it.

Marc Ecclefield, 12, who came with his grandmother, said: "It was neat. It had the little girl from 'Mrs. Doubtfire' in it (Mara Wilson) and the guy from 'Jurassic Park' (Attenborough). I liked those actors. They have that look that seemed to have a Christmas spirit."

Some kids thought Attenborough's spaced-out teeth made his Santa a little creepy, but Marc thought he looked great.

"They polished his nose to make it redder and shinier than in Jurassic Park."

Only a few kids were bothered by the film's indeterminate time period in which divorce is portrayed as a tragic aberration, bosses wear bow ties, and people train their children to call adults "Mr." and "Mrs."

Can we, for instance, really believe that a handsome, big-city single lawyer who arranges for a sitter before he asks a woman out and who buys a diamond for a woman he hasn't even kissed, has nowhere to go on holidays? I don't think so. Or that a high-powered female executive in a department store would let single guys she barely knows baby-sit her daughter, or wear weird generic suits to work? Or that there exist children who would ask Santa for only a bear or a doll?

Ooops, sorry.

In any case, the new version seemed to provide kids with easier access to the timeless message of faith over reason, which was spelled out for them at least twice: "Santa Claus is a symbol of the human ability to suppress hateful and selfish tendencies that otherwise dominate our existence."

Like most kids, Marc said he liked the new version better because "it had color to it." Plus, he said, "it was a better story."

In this version, Kris Kringle is set up by evil department store rivals who taunt him until he fights back with his cane and is sent to a psychiatric ward. Some of the best-known scenes were deleted--such as the dramatic courtroom climax where sacks of mail, addressed to Santa Claus, are dumped before the judge as legal proof that a branch of the U.S. government acknowledges the existence of Santa Claus. The kids said they didn't care, but you have to wonder if little ones will get the new explanation--that the words "One nation under God" on a dollar bill signify official support for invisible beings.

Younger children seemed most impressed by the scenes of winter in New York. The little kid in back of me loved the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza ("Whoa!") was frightened by New York at night (who's not?) and had trouble suppressing doubts about the existence of snow. ("Who's throwing that snow? How do you know it's coming from the sky?")

The kid in front, obviously impressed by his first courtroom drama, couldn't stop yelling "Order! Order!"

But most older kids, believers and nonbelievers alike, appreciated the feel-good holiday message.

As believer Julia Gardner, 9, put it: "It's about children believing in Santa Claus and most adults don't."

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