New Line Cinema
There are few holiday icons as instantly recognizable as Santa Claus. From an early age, we marvel at this magical being who monitors our behavior in order to decide whether or not we get presents at Christmas based on whether we've been naughty or nice. Often depicted as a rotund man with white hair and a jolly disposition, he is our collective mystical grandfather who simultaneously delights and worries us. He is, after all, a seemingly ancient entity who sneaks into your home at night while you're sleeping.
Nailing the perfect image of Santa in media is tricky. We all have different ideas of the exact details of his appearance and demeanor, so it is virtually impossible for movies to feature one incarnation that everyone can agree on. That's not to say that plenty of filmmakers haven't tried. There are countless renditions of Jolly old Saint Nick out there and they all vary in little ways.
Instead of going through and highlighting every film depiction of Santa we could possibly think of, we've decided to take a look at some of the most believable Santas that movies have to offer. They may not all look the same or even act the same, but every one of them has injected a kind of wisdom and charm that goes with having lived for hundreds of years, making us believe that they could be the genuine article.
13. Henry Lawfull in A Boy Called Christmas
Santa's beginnings aren't set in stone, so storytellers are free to dream up any origin story they wish to explain where he came from and how he got into the whole gift-giving game, to begin with. The Netflix original movie "A Boy Called Christmas" is one of many attempts to carve a definitive take on Saint Nick's backstory. It's a bit of a mashing up of a few other movies (some of which are included on this list) that endeavor to do the same thing, but "A Boy Called Christmas" leans heavily on the more fantastical elements.
This is very much the story of a boy. Therefore, we never get to see the man in the red robe and white hair we're used to. Instead, we have a scrawny kid with a big heart doing his best to find his father and bring a spark of joy to the tired, hungry, and miserable people of the land. In that way, we can absolutely buy him as Santa in child form because only someone this empathetic and selfless could possibly embark on such a wild endeavor as delivering toys to all the children of the world (who celebrate Christmas) every single year.
12. James Cosmo in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Based on the classic novel by writer C.S. Lewis, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is different than other epic fantasies in that the magical world of Narnia actually celebrates Christmas — when the White Witch isn't ruling over everything, that is. Even though she has covered Narnia in ice and snow, no one can ever celebrate the holiday because she hates joy and frivolity.
However, the arrival of the four Pevensie children (William, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) signals a turning of the tide and an end to the witch's reign of evil. Therefore, Santa Claus is able to visit Narnia once again and deliver much-needed relief to the enchanted creatures living there. This Santa doesn't hand out toys; he's all about the necessities, which is why he gives the Pevensies the tools and weapons they will need to defeat the White Witch.
While he isn't quite as jolly as some other depictions, there is a subtle delight coming through James Cosmo's performance. It's almost as though he's cautiously optimistic that Narnia will finally have merry Christmases again, making him feel grounded and only slightly unknowable. Were you to find yourself wandering through the woods on Christmas Eve, this could be the Santa who comes to your rescue.
11. Art Carney in The Night They Saved Christmas
Despite usually looking jelly-bellied, there are a surprising number of lean or skinny Santas in movies and television. One example of this kind of Santa is Art Carney in the fairly obscure TV movie "The Night They Saved Christmas." The iconic comedy actor best known as Ed Norton on the venerable sitcom "The Honeymooners" (who also played a Santa-like figure in the "Twilight Zone" episode "The Night of the Meek") Carney plays Santa as an effective manager who likes to make sure business is running smoothly.
Despite a subtle paunch pushing his suspenders, this is a solidly built Santa who appears capable of working long hours and has very little patience for funny business. That being said, he isn't without charm. When the Baldwin family first meets him, he has a seat and recalls some of the presents he's delivered to them over the decades. He obviously takes pride in his work and gets a charge out of reminiscing.
Another contributing factor to his gruff demeanor could be the fact that his home is in danger thanks to the explosions going on nearby. The dynamite used to look for oil at the North Pole is causing such a disturbance that it could bury him and the workshop. With such pressing matters, there isn't much time for eating cookies and laughing, making him feel like a real person in a tough situation.
10. Kurt Russell in The Christmas Chronicles
Kurt Russell gives us a fun Santa in the Netflix original film "The Christmas Chronicles" and its sequel "The Christmas Chronicles 2." He's the kind of Saint Nick (the name he prefers to be called) you could see yourself having a drink with and swapping stories all night long. Even though he's in a really tough spot (his sleigh can't fly, and a bunch of his gear is missing), he's still a charm machine like no other.
Of course, he's much leaner than your average Santa, but that's fine. The movies take the position that the Santa we're used to seeing is nothing more than a marketing stunt and most of the details we know about him are myths. How can he eat millions of cookies in a single night without getting fat? Because he's Santa, that's why. You just have to go with his incarnation, which isn't hard to do because he's having so much fun with the role.
Not only can this Santa remember everyone's names, he remembers what they wanted growing up, he knows what they want as adults, and he speaks several different languages. That makes him believable because Santa would need to do all that stuff to make his annual deliveries work. He's fun, funny, and a blast to watch.
9. J.K. Simmons in Klaus
The animated film "Klaus" by director Sergio Pablos is another take on the origins of Santa that takes things in a decidedly melancholic direction. Although the film has all kinds of jokes and comedy bits, there is a purveying sense of sadness underneath it. When the selfish and conceited Postman Jesper Johansson (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) meets the older man living in the woods with a stockpile of toys named Klaus (voiced by J. K. Simmons), he sees his abilities as a way to get the post office rolling again to benefit him.
Klaus agrees to let the children of their village have his toys, but he isn't particularly thrilled about it thanks to the tragedy that inspired him to make them in the first place. He is a deeply troubled man carrying the burden of heartbreak on his incredibly broad shoulders who isn't sure if he's ready to make more toys because of some painful memories. Although Johansson's scheme was selfish at first, by working with Klaus he comes to learn the virtue of selflessness. It makes perfect sense that just being around someone like Santa (even if he is a little distant and gruff) would make you see the error of your ways and that's what makes Klaus such a believable Santa.
8. Tom Hanks in The Polar Express
Warner Bros. Pictures
In case you needed more evidence that Tom Hanks is a versatile talent, "The Polar Express" has him play five different characters — including the big man in red himself. Although the animated film has been criticized for its unconventional style, when it came to bringing Santa Claus to the screen, it pulled out all of the stops by making this the most regal and mannered Santa of the bunch.
In the scene where our main characters finally make it to the North Pole (which looks like a real European city), Hanks is essentially acting with himself as he is credited with playing the protagonist and Santa, and the performances couldn't be more different. The child looks at this towering figure with awe as he basks in the platinum glow shimmering from his form. This Santa is definitely not of this world. There is a royal, unknowable quality about him that stops you dead in your tracks.
Say what you want about the motion capture animation, but this Santa has a real and physical presence unlike any of the others thanks to the ethereal nature of his behavior. He tells the boy that he is a symbol of the spirit of Christmas, indicating that he is not completely human, instead, he is a living representation of everything good about the holiday which feels true.
7. Ed Asner in Elf
New Line Cinema
Audiences familiar with the classic '70s sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," may find it difficult to believe that Ed Asner (the actor who played Mary's tough and intimidating boss Lou Grant) could ever play Santa, let alone a believable one. However, that's exactly what he did in the modern Christmas classic "Elf" from 2003. The Santa we meet in this Will Ferrell family comedy about a human who was raised as an elf in Santa's workshop is a weary man with concerns over the future of Christmas.
He isn't the rosy-red-cheeked jolly guy we typically imagine, nor is he a mean-spirited or cynical man. If anything, he's a realist who has seen the decline in Christmas spirit over the years and is troubled by it. There are plenty of moments where we see some of the old cheer return to his face and get a hint of the spark of love that ignited his passion for the holiday, to begin with, but he's worried and cautious.
That's what makes him so believable, actually. He feels very human in that way. It would be easy to say that Santa is the happiest guy in the world and nothing ever gets him down, but that isn't very relatable. It's much more difficult to give people a Santa who is a little uncertain and has doubts, but if you can make that work (which Asner absolutely does) then you can craft a memorable Santa for the ages.
6. Mickey Rooney in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town
NBCUniversal Television Distribution
Just like "A Boy Called Christmas" and "Klaus" (the former of which resembles this TV movie classic in several ways), "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" is another interpretation of Kris Kringle's origin. What sets this version apart from the others is the fact that it was produced by Rankin/Bass Productions: the same folks who gave us other incredible specials like "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "The Little Drummer Boy." Their specials have become so ubiquitous that it's easy to imagine that they are the definitive Christmas authorities.
"Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" has an epic scope that feels worthy of such an iconic and legendary character as Saint Nick. He began life as an abandoned child who was then adopted by the Kringle family of elves who are toymakers by trade. Unfortunately, there is so much sadness in the world that toys have been banned, so the Kringles have to live with the fact that no one will ever love their creations. Since he is so loving and pure of heart, Kris takes it upon himself to deliver those toys and restore happiness. You believe in him because it's Rankin/Bass and because it's easy to believe that Santa is truly that invested in spreading cheer.
5. Tim Allen in The Santa Clause
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
At the start of the 1994 holiday comedy "The Santa Clause," it's difficult to accept that Tim "The Toolman" Taylor from "Home Improvement" (Tim Allen) could ever be a convincing Santa, but that's entirely the point. The story of the film sees a neglectful father accidentally knocking Santa Claus off the roof and having to assume his duties. He is not prepared for this in any manner whatsoever, but few people are when venturing out on a new endeavor.
Over the course of the film, not only does he go through a physical transformation (resulting in him looking more like the kind of Santa we recognize) but an emotional one as well. He takes responsibility for his poor decision-making and embraces the joy that comes with the holidays. Therefore, thanks to some excellent work with makeup and costuming (movie magic, in other words), by the end of the film, you can't believe you ever doubted Tim's ability.
Another major contributing factor to the believability of this incarnation is the idea that Santa Claus is more of a title than any one person. It helps sell the idea that one man could live for so long and never really change. So, not only is this a believable iteration of the character, but the mythology works too.
4. Stan Francis in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
NBCUniversal Television Distribution
He looks like Santa, and he sounds like Santa, but the Santa in the all-time Rankin/Bass masterpiece "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" doesn't completely act like Santa. By this, we mean that he isn't perfect all of the time. If for some strange reason you've never seen this special (or heard the song): it's about a reindeer who is born with a nose that glows.
Instead of seeing this as an attribute, Rudolph's family and peers treat him like he has some kind of deformity. You would expect that Santa of all people would love and cherish Rudolph just the way she is, but even Mr. Claus has trouble accepting a reindeer with a glowing nose. All the rejection and discrimination inspire Rudolph and an elf named Hermey (who wants to be a dentist) to run off on their own.
Only in Rudolph's absence can the inhabitants of the North Pole see the error of their ways. Yes, even Santa is forced to admit his mistake, something that makes him very human. We can believe as much as we want that Santa is perfect in every way, but that just isn't very realistic. Therefore, this rendition of Santa may be the most believable animated version of all.
3. Douglas Seale in Ernest Saves Christmas
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Another film that employs the idea of Santa Claus being a title that gets handed down to those who are worthy is "Ernest Saves Christmas" from 1988. Starring the late Jim Varney as the titular Ernest, the film sees our dimwitted (but true of heart) Ernest helping Santa find his replacement in time for all the children of the world to get their presents.
This time around, Santa is played by Douglas Seale and he is stupendous. Not since Edmund Gwenn in "Miracle on 34th Street" have we had an actor infuse the character with so much wisdom and cheer. When Seale smiles, there is a noticeable twinkle in his eyes that put you immediately at ease. Throughout the film, children spot him and are amazed to be in the presence of the genuine article, and you buy it because Seale is just that good.
He's also believable because he gets angry with the producers of a trashy horror film who are exploiting the iconography of Christmas to scare people. You can imagine that if you've committed your life to the ideals of the holiday and spreading joy, the idea of someone perverting that would probably get your ire up.
2. David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie
"Santa Claus: The Movie" lets you know what it's about right there in the title. The producers didn't resort to any clever spins on other holiday films; they obviously set out to create the ultimate Santa movie and wanted you to know it. Just like plenty of other movies we've discussed, "Santa Claus: The Movie" features another new origin to Saint Nick.
The wonderful thing about this interpretation is that Santa made and delivered toys on Christmas long before he had any magic. He didn't do it to heal some wound in his heart (as in "Klaus"), or to answer the call of some lazy King's challenge (like in "A BoyCalled Christmas") — he did it because it made him happy. To repay him for his charity, a civilization of elves brought him into their world, granted him long life, and agreed to help him make/deliver toys to children all over the world.
David Huddleston is a superb cinematic Santa. He is tall, wide, and has a powerful presence. You're both amazed and startled by him, which should be the case when witnessing a seemingly immortal being. At his core, though, Huddleston's Santa is Jolly and loving. When he laughs, he sounds deeply amused and genuinely happy. When he smiles, it lights up the screen. It's a performance worthy of a film with such a bold title.
1. Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street
20th Century Fox
Edmund Gwenn is so delightful in "Miracle on 34th Street" that the filmmakers might as well have said they hired the real guy for their movie. With all due respect to Richard Attenborough, who turned in his own enchanting performance as Kris Kringle in the 1994 remake, Edmund Gwenn simply is Santa Claus.
Again, he isn't a rotund man stuffing his face with cookies — he isn't even a very large man at all, but he carries such dignity and pride that he comes off as larger than he is. It's fitting that the most believable Santa should come from "Miracle on 34th Street," since the entire film is about whether or not this man calling himself Kringle is the mythical Mr. Claus. In order to make that story work, you have to play him with everything you've got, and that's exactly was Gwenn does.
He exudes kindness, cheer, and love in every scene. There is more than just a twinkle in his eyes when he smiles, there is a whole universe of experience, understanding, and humor radiating from his features that feel at once young, ancient, and absolutely perfect.
As an expert in the realm of movies and Santa Claus depictions, I must say that the article you provided offers a comprehensive look at some of the most believable portrayals of Santa Claus in films. Each Santa, while varying in appearance and demeanor, manages to inject a sense of wisdom and charm that makes us believe they could be the genuine article.
One notable example is Henry Lawfull in "A Boy Called Christmas." This Netflix original movie explores Santa's origins and presents a young boy on a mission to bring joy to the people of his land. While we don't see the familiar red-robed, white-haired Santa we're used to, the empathetic and selfless nature of the young protagonist makes us believe that he could eventually become the Santa we know.
Another compelling portrayal is James Cosmo's Santa in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." In this film, Santa is able to visit Narnia and bring relief to the enchanted creatures living there. While not as jolly as other depictions, Cosmo's performance exudes cautious optimism and a sense of groundedness, making him a believable Santa who could come to the rescue on Christmas Eve.
In "The Night They Saved Christmas," Art Carney plays a lean and capable Santa who ensures that business runs smoothly in his workshop. Despite his no-nonsense demeanor, Carney's performance showcases Santa's pride in his work and his ability to bring joy to families, even in the face of danger.
Kurt Russell's portrayal in "The Christmas Chronicles" challenges the traditional image of Santa Claus. This leaner Santa is depicted as a fun and charismatic character who remembers everyone's names and speaks multiple languages. While unconventional, this portrayal is believable, as Santa would need such skills to carry out his annual deliveries.
J.K. Simmons' Santa in the animated film "Klaus" takes a melancholic approach to Santa's origins. While the film incorporates comedy, there is a sense of sadness underlying the character. Simmons' performance captures the troubled and burdened nature of Santa, making him relatable and believable.
Tom Hanks delivers a regal and mannered portrayal of Santa in "The Polar Express." This version of Santa possesses an ethereal quality, indicating that he is a living representation of everything good about the holiday. Hanks' performance, along with the animation style, gives this Santa a physical presence unlike any other.
Ed Asner's portrayal in "Elf" challenges the traditional image of a jolly and carefree Santa. Instead, Asner's Santa is a realist who acknowledges the decline in Christmas spirit. This more human and relatable depiction allows audiences to connect with Santa on a deeper level.
Mickey Rooney's Santa in "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" is an imperfect version of Santa. Despite his flaws, this Santa learns from his mistakes and demonstrates growth and humility. This portrayal makes Santa more believable and relatable to audiences.
Douglas Seale's Santa in "Ernest Saves Christmas" embodies wisdom and cheer. Seale's performance infuses the character with so much wisdom and joy that audiences can't help but believe in his authenticity.
David Huddleston's Santa in "Santa Claus: The Movie" offers a unique origin story for Santa. This portrayal showcases Santa's love for delivering toys, even before he had magical abilities. Huddleston's performance captures the Jolly and loving nature of Santa, making him a believable and endearing character.
Finally, Edmund Gwenn's Santa in "Miracle on 34th Street" is the epitome of a believable Santa Claus. Gwenn's performance exudes kindness, cheer, and love, making him the perfect embodiment of the mythical character. His portrayal in this classic film is so enchanting that it becomes difficult to distinguish him from the real Santa Claus.
These are just a few examples of the many believable portrayals of Santa Claus in movies. Each actor brings their unique charm and interpretation to the role, making us believe in the magic and wonder of Santa Claus.