Miller vs. Calvin: How The Santa Clause Trilogy Looks at Divorce

November 4, 2022
BY: Lesnevich, Marzano-Lesnevich, O'Cathain & O'Cathain


Let’s be honest: nowadays November is the holiday season. At the stroke of midnight on Halloween, pumpkins turn to holly wreaths; supermarket aisles go from stocking candy corn to candy canes; and our entertainment offerings switch from the Halloween and Hocus Pocus franchises to winter-weather, Christmas-themed fare. (At least, that’s how it feels to me!)

This year, on Wednesday, November 16th, Disney+ will premiere their new legacy limited comedy series, The Santa Clauses, based upon the three feature films starring funnyman Tim Allen that kicked off in 1994.

With three children, we often have a favorite Christmas movie running in the background as we bake cookies or wrap presents: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Elf. And The Santa Clause trilogy, in which Allen plays a divorced father named Scott Calvin who, improbably, dons the red suit and becomes the Santa Claus.

The first film features Scott’s son Charlie dealing with his father’s divorce from his mother, Dr. Laura Miller, and revolves around ongoing custody litigation that is impacted by the fact no adults believe that Scott is truly Santa. (I’ll bet you never thought of the 1994 smash hit The Santa Clause as a film about divorce, right?)

In the second film Scott falls for Carol Newman and learns he must marry her before next year’s Christmas Eve, or he will stop being Santa Claus— forever (the ‘Mrs. Claus’ clause). The film also deals with Charlie learning to live a life that includes a stepmother, and a stepsister from his mother and stepfather’s marriage.

In the third and final film, subtitled The Escape Clause, Scott must deal with his in-laws, Carol’s parents, and Charlie must contend with learning that his stepmom, Carol, is pregnant— thus bringing a second new sibling into his life. Additionally, as the subtitle hints, the subplot deals with Scott’s battles with the character Jack Frost, who wants to take over as Santa.

As a family lawyer, it hit me that not only is The Santa Clause trilogy three films that take on Christmastime, but it also mirrors the arc of what many children deal with when their parents get divorced: the initial shock and separation; a prolonged custody dispute; the arrival of a new significant other, who becomes a stepparent; and the arrival, eventually, of stepsiblings. The Santa Clause trilogy is really the story of a young boy, Charlie, finding how he fits in after his parents — Laura Miller and Scott Calvin — divorce. (Plus, of course, a story about reindeer, elves, and the Council of Legendary Creatures.)

So, whether you’ve seen the films a bunch of times (they’re all streaming on Disney+) and are excited about the new upcoming streaming series, or if you plan to watch them for the first time this holiday season, let’s track the arc of divorce as we look at young Charlie Miller (played by Eric Lloyd) in The Santa Clause trilogy:

 

The Santa Clause (1994) 

When we first meet Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin, a very successful member of the Midwest Marketing & Distribution team at BNR Toys, he’s telling lies to his e-wife Laura via car phone on Christmas Eve. (I mentioned the movie premiered in 1994, right?) His son is saying goodbye to Neil, his mother’s boyfriend, a psychiatrist — so Charlie is already contending with a new father figure in his life. Scott invites his ex-wife (and co-parent) Laura in and proceeds to insult Neil. In other words, it’s not the kind of behavior we want co-parents to model.

Scott and Laura have an argument over whether Neil told Charlie there’s no Santa Claus, while not knowing Charlie’s listening. Charlie even says, “Why do you guys always have to fight?” and then asks his mother, “Do I gotta stay?” We see that Charlie and his workaholic father are not close. Scott burns the turkey and ruins their Christmas Eve dinner — and Charlie, in praising Neil, tells his father Neil’s a real good cook. This, of course, is something that children and parents will have to contend with during divorce — the complicated feelings that a new presence on the scene brings about. (Charlie even says that Neil “… listens to him,” and later tells his dad, “We never do what I want to do!” and “How come everything I want to do is stupid?”) Figuring out the dynamics of co-parents and stepparents — or stepparent-like figures — is part of the process of navigating parenting with divorce (which, like all co-parenting, can be made even more difficult around the holidays).

Scott takes Charlie to the only restaurant that’s open, a Denny’s, and they sit in a section with other solo fathers and children. To make matters worse, the restaurant is out of chocolate milk and hot apple pie. And the truth is, traditions and holidays will change with divorce or separation — and it’s up to us to make the most of them. When they get home, Scott still reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to him— proving that not all traditions have to change; some may just evolve.

Everything changes on their journey though, as Scott engages in the Santa Claus clause and becomes the big guy himself (we won’t get into how — this is not an article on contract law).

Scott and Charlie wind up in the North Pole on Christmas Eve. (This leads to a funny line from Scott to Bernard, the head elf: “I’ve got homeowner’s insurance and a good attorney. Not as good my wife’s, but let’s not open up that wound.”)

Later both Neil, Charlie’s mother’s boyfriend and a psychiatrist, and Scott are at Charlie’s elementary class, on the day when parents discuss their professions. After the teacher doesn’t know how to refer to Neil (and this happens: when new significant others appear on the scene, it’s hard to know how to refer to them, and may be awkward), Charlie tells his class his father is Santa. This winds up with Scott, Laura and Neil arguing in front of the principal. A key takeaway here: outside of the movies, it may not be beneficial to have Neil, or whomever the significant other is, participate in this conversation. It’s usually best to let the co-parents do the actual talking.

The original film concludes with Charlie’s mother Laura and her boyfriend Neil accepting that Charlie was telling the truth the whole time: his father Scott is now Santa (the acceptance comes about when Laura receives a Milton Bradley Mystery Date Game, and Neil, a genuine Oscar Mayer Weenie Whistle — gifts they wanted in childhood and never got until now). Scott asks Laura if Charlie can come for a quick ride with him on his sleigh. The real Christmas gift here is, of course, that Scott has asked his co-parent if in fact his son may go. Laura says yes, and so, thanks to civil and cooperative co-parenting (and magical reindeer), off father and son ride on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.

 

Santa Clause 2 (2002) 

The plot of the sequel, Santa Clause 2, couldn’t be more straightforward: an elf named Curtis breaks it to Santa Claus (Scott Calvin — S.C., get it?!) that if he doesn’t get married in the next 28 days (in other words, Christmas Eve) he’ll have to stop being Santa — forever.

In the beginning of the movie Charlie — now in middle-school — is caught by his principal, Carol Newman (Elizabeth Mitchell), vandalizing his school with spray-paint, including making a red-line ‘no’ symbol over a Christmas tree (what Neil later terms, “A classic case of acting out.”) This is moments after a girl (a classmate of Charlie’s) has asked him, “Why do you never talk about your dad?” So clearly there’s trouble between father and son, and moments later an elf must break the news to Scott: Charlie is on the naughty list.

After amicable moments in a divorce, between co-parents, between parents and children, relationships (especially over periods of time, as in this instance) can devolve. Especially if a relationship isn’t tended to (it might be hard to be a good parent if you’re also, you know, Santa!). All familial bonds take work, time and emotional availability, and the relationship between a divorced dad and a son is no different. (In fact, the Sandman — a member of the previously mentioned Council of Legendary Creatures — explicitly says, “That’s every parent’s dilemma… how to balance work and children. More people lose sleep over that than anything else.”)

When Scott does leave the North Pole and arrives at Charlie’s school, he warmly greets Neil and his ex-wife, Laura. It shows how much time has passed since the first film and demonstrates that co-parents and ex-spouses can see their relationships evolve into healthy, mutually respectable ones. To the point where Laura says to Scott, “You have been a great dad, and being Santa has made you an even better man.” There are times in relationships where it feels impossible to consider saying that to your co-parent — and I don’t just mean the whole ‘Santa’ part! We also meet Lucy, Charlie’s half-sister, Laura and Neil’s daughter, who calls Scott ‘Uncle Scott’— further proof of how their relationship has progressed.

Scott takes a leave-of-absence from the North Pole (leading to a ‘toy Santa’ subplot that we won’t get into here) to stay with Laura and Neil, and to be more available for Charlie. And while there’s good intentions here, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of arrangement with divorce for a child at this age — it may lead to unrealistic expectations, miscommunications and hurt feelings.

Somewhere about halfway through the movie Scott brings Charlie’s Principal Newman — Carol, get it? — a cup of hot coffee and… well, we can tell where this is going.  So (this being a movie, after all), Scot takes Carol to her faculty holiday party in a horse-drawn sleigh with the magical touch of light falling snow. Scott, being Santa, enlivens the dull party by handing out favorite children’s gifts and toys to the boring teachers at the party — including a Baby Doll to Principal Carol Newman (much like he did with Neil and Laura in the first film). While normally we would not advise parents to date their child’s principal, well… this is a family Christmas movie.

Of course, Charlie, who, with his classmates, pelts Principal Newman’s house with snowballs, is unhappy that his father is dating Carol Newman. This, too, is often a part of the long-term divorce dynamic. While a child may be happy their co-parent’s animosity has been largely resolved, they may not be happy when a new significant other enters the picture. In fact, it often takes time, mutual love and respect, and honest conversation when a new special someone comes on the scene.

All this is equally true as numerous aspects of divorce are worked out, including the parent/child dynamic. Scott and Charlie have an argument when a tearful Charlie confides to his father that it’s so difficult keeping the secret that his father is Santa Claus — and now his father has another secret, that he’s dating his principal!

While the instinct to protect our children can often feel right (especially when a relationship is in its infancy), secrets can also do damage. As I said earlier, honest conversation can often be a necessary part of keeping relationships healthy as you navigate your way through the post-divorce familial landscape.

Charlie then tells Principal Newman what Scott told her: he is Santa Clause. He gives her the snow globe his father gave him in the first movie. Though it happens awfully quickly, the scene speaks to the eventual possibility that any rift between your new significant other and your child can eventually be resolved. (However, this will most likely take longer than, say, two minutes of screen time.)

Principal Carol Newman marries Scott at the North Pole, in what is a very rushed second marriage — not a timeline we would advise for a divorced father with a child. (And, in fact, the film hits an unfortunate sour note when, as Scott is off to go deliver gifts on Christmas Eve, Carol tells him, “Don’t be home too late.” and her husband responds, “See? It starts.” While this may be playing upon Tim Allen’s old Home Improvement persona, no matrimonial lawyer wants to see a newly married couple start off with such a stale husband/wife dynamic.)

Charlie then lets his young half-sister in on the family secret: her “Uncle Scott” is Santa!

 

Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006) 

Despite the always amusing presence of Martin Short (as the movie’s villain, Jack Frost), the second sequel is perhaps the least engaging in the trilogy. The movie opens with Principal Newman now fully serving as Mrs. Claus, and pregnant. However, she’s homesick and misses her family. While Santa/Scott wants to bring them up north, the head elf is worried this will compromise the location of Santa’s workshop and ruin Christmas as the children around the world know it (as you might realize by now, the plot of each film is more or less the same!).

Additionally, the Council of Legendary Creatures has convened an emergency meeting at the North Pole, as Jack Frost wants his own holiday — or simply wants to take over Christmas (Frost-mas, anyone?). However, Santa gives Jack Frost one more chance to behave before he’s suspended from the Council. (There’s a whole subplot involving the Hall of Snow Globes and Jack becoming Santa that we won’t really get into here.)

Scott goes to visit his son Charlie and his honorary niece, Lucy, at his ex-wife Laura and her husband Neil’s house, before the twin big events of the birth of the baby and Christmas Eve. However, all these humans desperately want to visit the North Pole (who wouldn’t?!).

To solve his wife’s homesickness, Scott brings his in-laws — played by the legendary Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret — to the North Pole, only telling them they’re going to Canada. They’re joined by Laura, Neil and Lucy.

Meeting New FamilyHere we have, amidst the silly and overly convoluted plot, real interpersonal family dynamics at play; first, we have the ex-wife meeting the new wife (who is pregnant). This being the movies, they get on smashingly (with Laura telling Carol, “You’re glowing!”). In real life, feelings of resentment, bitterness and jealousy may come into play. We counsel our clients to take such interactions slowly, with all involved trying to be respectful of everyone’s feelings. While harmony in a sprawling and evolving family is possible, the truth is it may take time.

Secondly, we have the in-laws visiting their new son-in-law, who has been previously married (and with a child from his first marriage). Bringing in-laws into the picture can always be tricky (with Carol’s mother explicitly saying to her, “Maybe now you can tell us why you’ve completely cut us out of your life!”). The situation is rife for potential family squabbles and spats (and that’s true even if you haven’t added in the whole Santa Claus/North Pole situation). It is best to proceed slowly, and with caution: to level-set everyone’s expectations going into this type of family introduction and, again, act civil and polite.

The film — in between Jack Frost’s scheming — hits upon real family issues. As Carol’s mom also says to her, when she and her husband are meeting Scott’s ex-wife, “If Scott is that close to his ex-wife, and you don’t find that incredibly threatening, yes, I’m sure it’s very nice.” Later the three women are seen decorating a Christmas tree together. Now, if families can function that way — with trust, respect and understanding — well, that’s great. However, often it takes a lot of time, patience (and maybe therapy) for family dynamics to run this smoothly. So, give yourself time and grace as your families meld and move forward together.

Carol complains to her mother, “It’s always his busy season.”— meaning, of course, Scott is busy being Santa Claus. Expecting mothers — or fathers-to-be — may sometimes feel as though their partner isn’t making time for them or connecting with them. This plotline comes to a head halfway through the movie, in a fight between Scott and his father-in-law. Remember, in-laws and other family members may have everyone (especially their children’s) best wishes at heart (and may have the best of intentions), but a marriage must work between the two people in it.

When Carol says, of her marriage and relocation to the North Pole, “Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” moments later a bereft Scott confides, “I thought I had a second chance at having a family, but I blew it again.” This moment speaks to the fact that the trilogy really is about divorce and moving on from divorce. There’s always a next chapter in our clients’ lives after divorce, and sometimes that does involve remarriage and a new baby. That comes with its share of challenges, too; you must make sure you don’t repeat the mistakes of the first marriage (in this case, prioritizing work over everything else — i.e., ‘workaholic.’).

The film then becomes a riff on the holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, in a way: Scott goes back to not being Santa Claus and learns in this version of life he is estranged from his ex-wife and son, as well as that Laura and Neil themselves are divorced. (It also becomes a self-parodying take on Disneyland, with Jack Frost turning the North Pole into a theme park.) It’s here that Scott runs into the divorced Neil, who confronts him about how he was never a father to Charlie, and that put all the parental pressure on Neil — but Charlie didn’t want Neil to be his father; he wanted his father, Scott. And that’s true: stepparents and parents play different roles in a divorced child’s life, and children need different things from each parental figure. It’s important, of course, that the parental figures know and understand this themselves (which our protagonist Scott has lost sight of).

There is, of course, a whole Jack Frost versus Santa Claus fight and ending where Scott goes back to being Santa and saves Christmas, but, more importantly to us, Scott (back as Santa Claus) says the moral of the story, and the moral of moving forward in new family permutations after divorce: “We ticked each other off. That’s it. Just like families are doing all over the world on Christmas Eve that love each other — ticking each other off. And it’s okay. Because we don’t have to be perfect to be good families. We just have to be together.”

(The film continues, with Jack Frost freezing Laura and Neil and a magical hug from Lucy to Jack unfreezing them, but that’s something that if it happens in the real world, well: you should probably go to the E/R.)

Carol gives birth to a boy, and the film (and trilogy) is literally wrapped up in a bow as the closing credits roll! However, we all know that off the movie screen divorce and its aftermath can be a lot messier — especially around the holidays.

Yet what Scott says is true, and worth remembering: “We don’t have to be perfect to be good families. We just have to be together.” That’s a mantra everyone who’s navigating a family dealing with divorce would do well to heed, at Christmastime and all year-round (and whether Santa’s part of the family or not!)

As for how the story continues? The series trailer shows us Scott announcing his retirement as Santa Claus (with a new clause thrown in for good measure). My family will just have to watch The Santa Clauses when it premieres on Disney+. We’ll see what’s in store next for Scott Calvin, a divorced-and-remarried father of two (so far) who just happens to be Santa Claus!

Francesca O’Cathain is a Partner at Lesnevich, Marzano-Lesnevich, O’Cathain & O’Cathain, LLC where she has practiced exclusively matrimonial and family law for over 15 years. The firm is headquartered in Hackensack, New Jersey, and handles cases all over the state.