Round One: The Young Actress
Natalie Wood vs. Mara Wilson
One of the biggest kicks of the original film is getting to see the legendary Natalie Wood as a little kid. Skeptical Susan Walker is the most famous of all Natalie's childhood roles, and unlike some young actors whom you can actually see learning how to act as they get older (Elizabeth Taylor and the Harry Potter kids are good examples, and yes, I just knocked Liz Taylor), Natalie was obviously a pro at it from the beginning. There's no denying Natalie's powerful screen presence or natural talent when Susan primly dismisses Fred's attempt to tell her fairy tales, or when she listens in wonder as Kris tells her what imagination is. And while Mara Wilson, who plays 1994 Susan, is a fine young actress too, she loses much to her cliched character.
Natalie's Susan is an intelligent kid, but still realistic and believable. She sounds like an intelligent kid, while Mara sounds more like a depressed forty-year-old. She has a sad expression on her face for most of the film and speaks all her lines in a whisper. In short, she's not a real child at all: she's a precious moments figurine. Such a limited role is an insult to Mara as an actress, and I believe that being typecast in this way was one reason why Mara left acting altogether. (Although it's safe to assume that even if 1994 Susan wasn't so poorly written, Mara's performance still wouldn't have lived up to Natalie's. She may have been a little girl when she did the role, but Natalie left some damn big shoes to fill.) Mara also has much more screentime than Natalie, who was not yet famous, and so we see a lot of her sad, precocious little girl look, which gets old fast and cheapens the film. You might ask, what does Mara have to be sad about? Her mom won't let her believe in Santa Claus! Which brings us to...
Round Two: The Mother
Maureen O'Hara vs. Elizabeth Perkins
While Natalie matter-of-factly accepts that there is no Santa, Mara is traumatized by the knowledge, to the point that the film practically screams, "She doesn't believe in Santa? Her childhood is ruined!" It makes Elizabeth look like the grinch. Although Maureen won't let Natalie believe in Santa, she obviously loves her daughter very much and has her best interests at heart. The bond between Elizabeth and Mara isn't nearly as strong, and it's a huge loss for the new film. When Elizabeth catches Mara visiting Santa, Mara actually seems scared of her, while there isn't one moment in the original film where you can't tell how much Natalie loves Maureen. This contrast is most obvious in the scene where Santa asks Susan what she wants most for Christmas:
Mara replies, in her sad whispery voice, "A house, a brother, and a dad. That's all I ever want." In other words, she wants the traditional American family, because her single-parent mom is not good enough for her. (But who can blame her? Elizabeth does come off as quite the grouch.) This is just one scene when the film gets way too moralistic and preachy -- "Single parents are bad!" and "Christmas shouldn't be secular!" are its strongest messages -- something I blame on its writer and producer, John Hughes.
But when Natalie is asked the same question, she simply replies that she wants a house to live in with her mom. She doesn't ask for a dad or brother, and why should she? She and her mom love each other and are doing just fine on their own. When compared to the 1994 scene, Natalie almost seems to be saying, "I love my mom, and there's nothing wrong with single parents, so screw you, John Hughes!" Go, Natalie!
The original film presents Edmund Gwenn as an insane but sweet old man who thinks he's Santa. The new film ridiculously expects you to believe that Richard Attenborough really is Santa, as he talks about his friendship with the Easter Bunny and even explains technical details, like how he can make reindeer fly and slow down time to deliver presents around the world. I can only imagine how foolish a fine actor like Richard Attenborough felt saying such ridiculous lines, and they make his Santa look like a childish buffoon. Edmund's script never sinks to that level, so his Santa comes off as a dapper, charming old man. In short, the new film takes the original's thoughtful drama and waters it down to simple-minded kiddie flick with nothing to offer older viewers.
But what's most disturbing is that, even though its target audience is kids, the new film has many moments that don't belong in a kids movie. There are references to Elizabeth Perkins's alcoholic ex-husband, adult jokes about how Mara Wilson will get the baby brother she wanted for Christmas, and most shockingly, the bad guys actually allege that Richard Attenborough is only playing Santa because he's a pedophile ("You got something for the kiddies?"). Such out-of-place moments ultimately make the film no fun for kids or adults.