Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause


Preparing for the holidays can be stressful enough. Imagine if it was a year-round process. In THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE, the jolly bringer of Christmas cheer finds home and work demands a little overwhelming.

On top of monitoring toy production and naughty and nice lists, Santa Claus (Tim Allen), a.k.a. Scott Calvin, and his wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) have a baby Claus on the way. Carol is understandably nervous, especially since her due date may fall on the same night as Scott/Santa’s big delivery.

Due to the nature of Santa’s work, the location of the Claus home must remain secret, meaning that they’re cut off from family in the U.S. (Scott’s in-laws think he’s a Canadian toymaker.) Nevertheless, Carol asks for her parents (Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin) to be brought to the North Pole to help her through the pregnancy. Scott agrees to retrieve them as long as the joyful village can be redecorated with a maple leaf and hockey theme to sustain the illusion that they’re in Canada.

Adding to Santa’s concerns is Jack Frost (Martin Short), an ambitious fellow who wants to represent a holiday rather than the start of a season. The Council of Legendary Figures is ready to discipline Jack for his unsuccessful attempt to create Frostmas, but Jack persuades them to give him community service helping Santa. Meanwhile, he schemes to take over the big guy’s role.

THE SANTA CLAUSE films may speak to the need for family connections, but this third movie represents another part of the season: the need to move product. It’s no secret that sequel after sequel is produced because they continue to sell tickets. Walt Disney Pictures is going to ride this franchise until they cease to pull in sufficient box office dollars or Tim Allen bails. (That’s when it will likely evolve into a direct-to-video series.) From a business standpoint it makes perfect sense. Creatively, though, it’s another matter entirely.

The two prior films have been profitable enough to justify the existence of a third one—I’ll concede that the second film is a successful family movie—but there’s nowhere for THE SANTA CLAUSE movies to go. The concept’s bankruptcy is apparent in THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 employing the movie world’s equivalent of jumping the shark. An imminent newborn enters into the equation, and the film swallows its own tail by returning twice (!) to the pivotal moment when Scott assumed the responsibility of being Santa.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 had the potential for some mildly raucous fun with Jack Frost. Nothing subversive like the vulgar hilarity of the decidedly family-unfriendly BAD SANTA, mind you, but something along the lines of Jack Skellington’s unfortunate reimagining of the holiday in THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (the cartoon, not the rancid live-action version) would have been nice.

In the first half of the film Jack takes a back seat to the domestic crises of the Clauses, just what the little ones in the audience want to see. When he finally gets to cut loose, Jack’s evil machinations are manifested by turning the North Pole into a tourist trap and making himself the star of a Broadway-style revue. That’s diabolical but not all that funny.

Allen won’t be winning any awards for his work in films like this—nor should he—but he’s an agreeable actor who has found his niche and is often the best thing about his lesser movies. The Santa Claus role reins him in, but he adds a welcome dash of mischief to the large-hearted guy.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 helmer Michael Lembeck is a veteran television director. To his credit, he feeds this stale story in bite-sized servings that make it watchable even if it doesn’t satisfy. This plays a lot like a TV holiday special intended to reach a broad viewership. It’s diverting enough seasonal fare appropriate for a wide age range. Family viewing like THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 won’t muster any strong objections, but who wants a Christmas gift for which that’s the best you can say about it?

Grade: C-

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