Santa in Training, streaming now on Netflix, is the newest addition to the list of films that should categorically be discarded inside the writer’s room.
Story: At the Christmas headquarters, an aged Santa is looking for a new replacement to take his mantle. But the man he ends up selecting is especially not fond of Christmas.
Christmas is a joyous time. Christmas trees are blanketed in fairy lights, candy canes and trinkets, the stockings are hung above the mantle in anticipation of it being filled to the brim the next morning, and the happy carolers join in chorus to belt out age-old songs about the Kings of the Orient. Amid this is a Santa with an agenda.
A popular subgenre of Christmas movies is Christmas horrors. These combine the holiday spirit with some blood and gore to counteract the sickly sweetness of Christmas films. Often, they are a welcome change to the otherwise homogenous mix of wholesome movie offerings. But there are times when the filmmaker may have attempted to make a Christmas film and it accidentally turns out to be a horror. Director Christian Vogeler’s Santa in Training, which is currently streaming on Netflix, is one such fortuitously terrifying film.
The story is of a grumpy middle-aged man Eddie (Antonio Sabato Jr) who has been chosen as the new Santa to be deputed. He isn’t too enthused about the idea, considering his earliest memories of Christmas don’t feature his father. He is also going through a separation with his wife Clara (Carolina Pozo), supposedly because of his lack of drive in life. A janitor by profession, he is kidnapped by two nincompoop elves Dippy (Kate Katzman) and Slippy (Carson Rowland) to train him for challenges he might face as the new face of the holiday. There’s also an embittered right-hand man who seeks revenge for being overlooked during the Santa promotion.
Everything from the background score, the mix-media animation, props, the acting and the cinematography is designed to cleave open your skull and beat your brain to a pulp. From the first frame, the jarring background noise continues to drown out all conversation between the characters. The hand-drawn snowflakes falling outside of the window look like giant white boulders that can crush any human under it, and one might even mistake the steam coming out of Santa’s hot chocolate to be instant noodles. Go figure!
There is no explanation as to why the cinematographer decided the entire film be shot diagonally. Even if you adjust your phone screen accordingly, the horrors that the protagonist and the audience are subjected to, seem disproportionately jarring for the human brain to comprehend. During one of the Santa training sessions, Eddie partakes in an obstacle race that includes being hit by giant wrapped boxes, crawling through a bed of confetti, hanging from decorated crowbars and confronting a group of scary kids. The sequence is heavy with optical and auditory explosions with frames swathed in neon lights, oscillating close-up shots of children making faces at the camera and hand-drawn animation that effectively numb all your senses in one swoop. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, if the wonderland was a low-production nightmare.
There are scenes in the film where the miniature versions of the two elves wolf down a pie while standing inside of it. If you are an Indian and have watched the Saffola child somersaulting beside a giant poori, you’d know that a miniature should not resemble a cardboard cutout precariously placed on a bowl of unappetising white goo.
There’s also the problem of the target audience. The film claims to be PG-13, but there are scenes where a man is surrounded and sniffed by his women colleagues or people breaking into bathrooms while characters take baths, making the movie veer dangerously close to a sleazy sex comedy. There are also done-to-death tropes of a waiter continuously interrupting a conversation to take his order, or a man trying to mask a poop emergency. They could’ve worked for quick laughs if they did not look like rehashes of every sub-standard Hollywood romantic comedy ever made.
The film tries to subvert established Christmas norms creating a parallel narrative for the ostensible Dream Merchants. In one scene, the protagonist tries to gulp down mountains of cookies with milk as the elves cheer him on. It is particularly unsettling to watch your favourite Christmas activities being reinterpreted as intimidating. But when a man in a deflated polar bear costume attacks Eddie, and it is supposed to be taken in all seriousness, you are bound to question whether the film is indeed directed towards a younger milieu who’d lap up the ludicrousness of it all to enjoy its mind-numbing silliness.
Even if you were to look past the hyperstylisation of the movie, where the protagonist is seen in pitch-dark spaces with one spotlight on his face as the camera zooms in on the crevices of his tortured face, or the deafening operatic music that has no value addition to the narrative proper, there is no coherence in Santa in Training. Even when the end credits start rolling, you aren’t sure if you quite comprehend the trainwreck that just passed you by in its entirety.
Verdict: There are some films that are so bad they’re good. Most film aficionados can quote Gunda in their sleep. There are others that need to stay buried to preserve humanity. There’s also a third kind, that begs to be unmade. Unfortunately, Santa in Training falls under the third category.