The way special effects have grown, this is even better than what they were able to do with Little Man.
—Ludacris, “Ludacris loses his head for Fred Claus”
What is Ludacris doing in this movie? Plotwise, the answer seems simple enough: he’s the black elf who works for Santa (Paul Giamatti). But it gets more complicated. His name is DJ Donnie and, being the North Pole’s token, he mans the sound system, ensuring the other busy-bee elves are surrounded by inspiring seasonal music, like, for instance, “Here Comes Santa Claus” on an endless loop.
This set-up is about as original as Fred Claus gets, which is to say, not very. Worse, it sets up a joke involving Fred (Vince Vaughn), Santa’s cranky loser of an older brother. As Fred has agreed to help out Santa during the week before Christmas in exchange for bail money (he’s been arrested in Chicago, where he’s a repo man) as well as seed money for his latest business venture. (Santa is apparently rolling in dough.) Horrified to hear the umpteenth repeat of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Fred busts into DJ Donnie’s booth to demand a change. The little guy—Ludacris’ head is digitized onto a little person’s body, an effect that’s even creepier than it sounds, with his smallness enhanced by forced-perspective shots of looming Vaughn—not only refuses, but he also takes offense at the intrusion, and proceeds to throw himself at Fred with all his little guy might. “Don’t get physical on me!” yelps Fred, as DJ Donnie clings to his leg. “You’re like an untrained dog!”
Granted, this exchange constitutes only a brief dismal moment in an overlong dismal movie. But it’s indicative of the discomfiting rhythms that pass for comedy, the tedious homosocial anxiety jokes, alongside even more tedious little person jokes. The primary other example has Fred teaching another elf, Willie (John Michael Higgins’ head on someone else’s body) how to dance, so Willie might woo the object of his affection, Santa’s Little Helper, also known as Charlene (Elizabeth Banks). (For reasons unexplained, this little helper is not in fact little, but she is reduced to wearing a skimpy red skirt and showing much cleavage.) Fred’s instruction involves some nervous-making but so-very-hilarious moments wherein Willie’s hands are placed on Fred’s bottom and his face awfully near Fred’s crotch. “Get my blood pumpin’!” exhorts Fred. “Let’s make it happen!”
The ostensible comedy of such moments depends on the height difference that allows Fred to show off just how superior he feels to everyone, most especially elves. This has something to do with his emotional evolution, as his grumpiness is premised on his mother’s (Kathy Bates) overwhelming and frequently expressed preference for her saint of a son, Nicholas: an early origins scene illustrates her bad mothering and Frederick’s efforts first to get her attention and then, to take revenge on his endlessly good-natured if essentially naïve brother. (While this is a somewhat unusual take on the Santa saga and so perhaps warrants its few predictable minutes, the following explanation sequence, essentially, “This is how the North Pole works,” is wholly unnecessary: who doesn’t know that elves work round the clock and don’t get paid?)
Santa’s saintly kindness inspires his wife Annette to stand up to Fred, but even the great Miranda Richardson, who plays the wife, can’t allay the film’s fundamental banality. The entire film seems born of a stunty scene where Fred attends a Siblings Anonymous meeting (Frank Stallone complains he just couldn’t compete with both Rocky and Rambo), which makes aptly dismissive fun of Fred’s completely boring poor-me shtick. But the film maintains its fiction of an emotional trajectory, complete with brother-brother confessionals and sappy soundtrack, not to mention a comeuppance for Santa’s primary obstacle, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) in his new gig, accountant for the corporation that means to shut Santa down, and oh yes, a great soaring climax where Fred saves Christmas. This even as Fred performs the usual Vince Vaughnish cynicism, his PG movie offered up as flimsy middle ground between Bad Santa and the Santa Clause franchise, at once grimly commercial and crassly sentimental.
Both these nodes are embodied in an orphan in Chicago named Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson). Adorable, needy, and trusting in the way that orphans tend to be in the movies, this lonely boy looks to Fred as a role model. When Fred takes from Slam a lesson that is actually worthwhile (there are no innately “naughty” kids, undeserving of presents, only bad situations that lead them to act out), he earns the respect and affection of his brother, Annette, Willie, even Santa’s Little Helper. It’s surely incidental that Fred rescues a black child, but when he delivers to Slam the present he most wanted—an utterly enchanting puppy—it’s hard to forget the film’s previous doggie reference. What DJ Donnie thinks of the good Fred or the cute puppy, we’ll never know.