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Popular movie Santas ranked worst to best

Santa Claus has been appearing in motion pictures for almost as long as motion pictures have been around. As he has with nearly every other aspect of popular culture, the mythic gift giver has become a staple of the cinema, with dozens of actors playing different versions of the character over the course of more than a century. 

Of those many, many actors to don the red suit, a handful have risen to become classic incarnations of Father Christmas, appearing on-screen again and again as families revisit their films appearances every single December. The most popular film Santas aren't just benevolent seasonal figures who show up on cherished movies every year. They've also helped to shape our modern ideas about who Santa Claus is and who he can be. 

But even among these perennially popular Santas, though, some are better than others, and we're here to find out which Santa reigns supreme. From traditional St. Nicks to creepy Kris Kringles, here are the most popular movie versions of Santa Claus (no TV specials here) ranked from worst to best.

Rare Exports has a very different take on Father Christmas

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale isn't a Santa Claus story in the traditional sense. In fact, it's a Christmas horror movie, but that doesn't make it any less compelling. The film takes its inspiration from Finnish folklore, reminding us that there are many different interpretations of Christmas figures who both give gifts and dispense punishments all over the world. What makes this a particularly effective twist is the film's ability to root its story in certain aspects of Christmas iconography that we all recognize, from reindeer to old men with beards. 

Have you ever heard the excuse that all the bearded men we see on the street dressed as Santa aren't the "real" Santa, but rather his helpers who dress like him to pass messages on from children? Rare Exports takes that idea and ramps it up into a dark fantasy tale in which Santa's many bearded helpers begin working to raise the real Santa Claus, who's an ancient horned being who's been imprisoned in a block of ice for centuries and longs to be free so he can punish children once again. This version of Santa doesn't appear until the climax of the film, but the image of him is so unforgettably dark and cool that it just might warp your understanding of Christmas forever in ways both fun and frightening.

Rise of the Guardians features a superhero Santa

Rise of the Guardians isn't a Christmas movie in the strictest sense, though it was released around Thanksgiving in 2012 to tie it into the holiday season box office. If you have to connect the film to one particular holiday, it's actually an Easter movie, because a big chunk of the plot revolves around that day and the Easter Bunny's preparations for it. The film does have a very memorable Santa Claus, though. 

This time around, Santa goes by the name of Nicholas St. North. He's a burly and boisterous guy with a heavy Russian accent, voiced by Alec Baldwin. North is the leader of the Guardians, a group of mythical beings that guard the ideals of childhood. Like most Santas, he lives at the North Pole, loves Christmas, and hangs out with the elves quite a bit. Unlike most Santas, North is also a fierce warrior, leading the Guardians into battle with a pair of swords and never shrinking from a fight. Though he's not the main character in Rise of the Guardians (that would be Jack Frost), Baldwin's North infuses the film with a deep sense of joy and wonder. He's a character always ready for an adventure and a belly laugh, and it's easy to see why kids might latch onto him as the kind of fun Santa they'd like to hear coming down their chimneys.

St. Nick is pretty lovable in Ernest Saves Christmas

The Ernest movies usually take the form of the title character (played by Jim Varney) getting in over his head in some unbelievable scenario, and then teaming up with a group of far less bumbling characters who can serve as his straight men/women to solve the problem. Ernest Saves Christmas might be the most pure distillation of this dynamic, because the straight man that Ernest spends much of the film playing off of is Santa Claus himself. 

This version of Santa (Douglas Seale) comes across Ernest when he journeys to Florida to name a struggling actor and local children's TV host as his successor to the title of Father Christmas. Of course, Ernest is bumbling and clueless but also eternally optimistic, and the two men grow to like each other immediately. 

Seale's version of Santa is a classic take in the Miracle on 34th Street tradition. He shows patience and kindness in the face of real world obstacles, and he immediately takes a liking to people who are struggling. This works particularly well when he's pair with Ernest, because his presence reminds that, as strange and overwhelming as Ernest may be, he's at heart a very kind man just trying to make people happy. Plus, Santa's magic sack — which dispenses glowing orbs that then become gifts — is a rather magical addition to the lore.

Tim Allen owns the role in the Santa Clause trilogy

The Santa Clause spends much of its runtime being a film about a guy who doesn't really want to be Santa at all. The premise of the original film is that Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) accidentally knocks Santa off his roof on Christmas Eve, puts on the red suit, and becomes the next Santa Claus, all while denying everything that's happening. By the end of the film, Scott has embraced his destiny as the new Kris Kringle, and he gets to spend the next two movies proving just how much he loves his new job, so much so that he's willing to fight all manner of magical outside forces to keep it. 

Tim Allen's Santa is thoroughly jolly, conveying an uncomplicated sense of warmth as soon as he's decided to embrace his new gig as the avatar of holiday cheer. He's the kind of Claus who drops everything to play football with his elves, and in The Santa Clause 2, he's even willing to give up a little bit of his ration of Christmas magic to dote on children for a little while. Still, there's something about his overall style that always veers a little too closely to, well, Tim Allen as he exists as a sitcom star. It's a little too evident that we're watching someone who used to be just a regular guy, and that cuts through the cheer just a bit.

David Huddleston is quite jolly in Santa Claus: The Movie

Though it's risen to cult status thanks to the annual impulse to revisit Christmas films every December, Santa Claus: The Movie is kind of a mess. The film begins with the man who would be Santa dying in a blizzard (he gets better), then introduces a somewhat confusing mythology, then introduces a secondary story that could be a movie all its own involving a holiday dubbed "Christmas 2" every March. It's a lot to take in and not always in a good way. 

That's a bit of a shame, because the film actually does feature a rather enjoyable Santa Claus performance from David Huddleston. Huddleston's combination of warmth and boisterous presence makes him feel a little like if Burl Ives' talking snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had swapped roles with Santa. He's folksy, he's kind, he's exuberant, and he's able to look both comfortingly human and larger than life. The scene when he befriends a homeless orphan boy on the streets of New York City and takes him up to the see the sleigh is a particularly joyous one.

Kurt Russell isn't your typical Santa in The Christmas Chronicles

As soon as we saw a slightly older Kurt Russell start to don various versions of facial hair in his movies, we knew his turn in the big red suit couldn't be far off. Fortunately, Netflix's The Christmas Chronicles got to Russell before he was old enough to play the kindly, docile Santa, and instead, we got Kurt Russell – Action Claus. 

The Christmas Chronicles follows a brother and sister who accidentally capture an image of Santa on a camcorder and, in their quest to get more footage, end up derailing his Christmas Eve flight. Santa is then forced to team up with the kids to save Christmas, but even as he's fighting to preserve the holiday, it becomes clear that Santa is more interested in saving the family he's encountered than anything else. 

Russell's version of Santa is, predictably, dripping with the kind of charm we've come to expect from him. He's dashing, he's funny, and to the right pair of eyes, he's even rather sexy in the role. The film doesn't work as well as some others on this list, but "Kurt Russell as Santa Claus" was never going to be boring.

Arthur Christmas proves Santa Claus has to be a little crazy

Arthur Christmas is one of a small subgenre of Santa Claus films that establishes the role of Santa doesn't belong to one man, but instead, he's part of a centuries-old lineage tied to the Claus family. The film's focus is largely on Arthur, the current Santa's youngest son, as he attempts to save Christmas after a gift delivery error means one child won't get her present. However, the story presents us with an entire family of past, present, and future Santas, each with their own outlook on the meaning of the Christmas season. 

While we could choose Arthur as the best Santa here, we don't actually get to see him in the role until the very end of the film, which means that the real champion of Arthur Christmas is actually Arthur's "Grandsanta." Voiced by Bill Nighy, Grandsanta is a grouchy, slightly mad supercentenarian who hasn't been the reigning Santa Claus since the 1940s, and therefore, he still believes in the old way of doing things. His reliance on more traditional methods and his lack of understanding of the modern world means he gets into quite a bit of trouble, but his love of Christmas and classic sleigh-and-reindeer iconography make him instantly lovable. Plus, he's living proof that in order to do the job of Santa, you'd have to be more than a little bit crazy.

The original Miracle on 34th Street has an iconic Kris Kringle

Miracle on 34th Street still holds the distinction of being the seminal "Santa Claus in the real world" movie more than seven decades after its release, and the film works incredibly well in large part because of Edmund Gwenn's wonderful performance as Kris Kringle, a man who strolls into New York City on Thanksgiving Day and starts to change lives. 

The first thing we see Gwenn's Santa do in the film is approach a storefront before the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is set to start and inform the owner, with rather charming earnestness, that he's put his reindeer decorations in the wrong order. From there, after berating the parade's Santa for being drunk on the job, he's thrust into work as Macy's resident Santa for the Christmas season, at which point he begins professing to everyone that he's the real deal. 

Much of the plot of Miracle on 34th Street concerns the other characters arguing over whether Kris is really Santa, but from the moment we meet him, Gwenn leaves no doubt that he's the genuine article. From his charming entrance to that legendary beard-tugging scene, he remains for many Christmas movie fans the definitive Santa Claus, and it's still easy to see why.

Richard Attenborough is true gift in Miracle on 34th Street

The remake of Miracle on 34th Street shouldn't work. At the time it was released in 1994, no one was questioning the original film's place on the list of classic Christmas movies, and coming up with a new big-screen version seemed so ill-advised that even Macy's declined to participate. So, screenwriter John Hughes renamed the department store "Cole's," and the production carried on anyway. 

Somehow, the 1994 Miracle worked. It may not ascend to the same level as its predecessor, but it's become a Christmas classic in its own right, and Lord Richard Attenborough can take a rather larger slice of the credit for that. There was perhaps no other benevolent, bearded actor in the world who could've convincingly stepped in to fill Edmund Gwenn's shoes for the Miracle remake quite like Attenborough did, and even now, watching him in the film is like watching a magic trick. Like Gwenn before him, he just becomes Santa, full of gravitas and warmth and little flourishes of holiday delight. The scene in which he communicates with a deaf girl using sign language remains one of the great Christmas movie tearjerkers, and he remains one of the great movie Santas. Somehow, against all odds, he's even better than Gwenn.

Ed Asner is the perfect Santa Claus in Elf

Elf is a film about Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human who snuck into Santa's sack as a baby and wound up at the North Pole, where he was adopted by one of the elves. It's only when Buddy is a full-grown adult that the truth about his heritage is revealed, and he embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father. 

Because so much of the film focuses on Buddy's adventure and his fish-out-of-water antics in the Big Apple, Elf's version of Santa Claus is only a supporting character, popping up at the beginning of the film and then again in the climactic moments to offer Buddy a little bit of encouragement and, of course, set in motion the events that allow him to save Christmas. Still, Ed Asner makes the few scenes he has as the Big Man instantly unforgettable. His Santa is worldly, dry-humored, and no-nonsense, giving off the same kind of gruff vibes that the stop-motion Santa from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer initially had. 

Beneath that world-worn exterior, though, there's an inherent kindness and patience to Asner's Santa that makes him the best possible version of Father Christmas on the big screen. He's been around the block, and it shows, but if there's one thing this guy's learned from flying around the world every year for centuries, it's that love is at the heart of Christmas spirit.