Santa Claus is pretty great, for a lawless vigilante. He brings toys to good little girls and boys while ruthlessly dashing the hopes and dreams of terrible kids who kick the back of airline seats on cross-country flights by leaving a lump of coal in their stockings, which is pretty savage but also just. But strangely, for such a beloved figure, his workshop is depicted over and over as a grim place lorded over by tiny elf martinets with Napoleon complexes and bad hats. You'd think that it would be a fun, magical place full of toys and laughter, but Hollywood set-designers have apparently joined in some sort of cabal to make the workshop a metaphor for all kinds of things, including the perils of runaway industrialism and repressed desires to go into dentistry. Don't believe it? Here now are six examples of Santa's workshop as architectural hellscape, as imagined by Hollywood.
The Santa Clause
Kris Kringle goes Steampunk in The Santa Clause, the first entry in the increasingly dire Tim Allen-starring trilogy of holiday time-wasters. Production designer and frequent David Cronenberg collaborator Carol Speier ditches classical Northern European tropes in favor of a vaguely ominous room that's all burnished brass, wrought iron, and stained glass, a Nemo-esque nerve center for Santa Claus, right down to the ornate monogrammed "S" on the central column.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
Here Santa's workshop becomes a stultifyingly sterile, tightly constrained space with a drab color palette that oozes joylessness, an abstracted representation of the culture of conformity through which jolly old St. Nick imposes his fascistic will upon his unpaid legion of workers. Or, you know, film creators Rankin and Bass saved their budget for their magnificent character designs.
The Santa Paws 2
This sequel to a movie that was actually a prequel to an Air Bud movie (and is itself the 13th movie in the Air Bud series, and yes, that's a real thing) hits the kiddie demo sweet spot with this nonthreatening version of Santa's workshop. With a design that is unabashedly on the nose—boasting slides and board games and stripey poles, and populated by cheerful wee folk clothed in brightly colored smocks—this is surely the workshop as every child imagines it at some point: a friendly, fun, decidedly non-industrial space which would totally be a great place to play. In other words, pretty much the landscape of grownup nightmares.
The beams and rafters of this colorless mashup of Bavarian and Scandinavian design press down on and constrain Will Ferrell's titular character to such an extreme degree it's reasonable to wonder why the hell he would want to sit there for eternity, pouring grey sand into an endless tide of Etch-A-Sketches. As expressive of the existential dilemma of the character as the interiors in any Ingmar Bergman film, Elf's workshop is a place that reminds us once again that being one of Santa's elves pretty much sucks.
Santa Claus: The Movie
More is not always more, a maxim that the cluttered, nonsensical design of the workshop in box-office mega-bomb Santa Claus: The Movie helpfully illustrates. With its rough hewn timber, pegged joints, and floor-plan that leaves little room for the actual manufacturing of toys, it's a space made for a camera, divided into thirds for ease of shot composition and in no way believable as a room, fantastical or otherwise. Nothing relates, from the Escher-esque stairways to the cuckoo clock above the door. Plus, those clown puppets are too darn creepy.
This notorious, mind-boggling take on the legend of Santa Claus has to be seen to be believed, if only to experience what it would be like to visit the toy workshop while under the influence of ergot-ridden gingerbread cookies. A vast, open-plan room peppered with asymmetrical workstations staffed by the Children of the World—the icy-looking room and its single visible exit seems like a nightmare for child labor inspectors and the insufficiently inebriated alike.