Eight years is a long gestation period for a sequel nowadays, but a substantial hiatus is no guarantee of quality–after all, it took half a decade to devise last summer’s thoroughly pedestrian “Men in Black II.” The time has been better spent in putting together “The Santa Clause 2.” The second installment of Tim Allen’s first (and most successful) big screen enterprise thus far doesn’t have as high a bar to reach as Barry Sonnenfeld’s picture did–after all, the original 1994 flick was hardly a classic. It was, however, a reasonably clever family film which nicely combined slapstick and warmth; and the good holiday news is that the new movie, smoothly directed by Michael Lembeck, comes close to matching it. Parents can take their kids to “The Santa Clause 2” with confidence that the children should be content and they themselves mildly amused.
The basic premise is one that goes back cinematically at least to Buster Keaton, and dramatically a lot further than that–about a fellow who has to find a bride quickly. In the case of Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), the ordinary joe who became Santa in the initial movie, he learns that he has to marry by Christmas Eve–not for fear of losing a big inheritance, like the hero of “Seven Chances,” but of being forced to give up the job he’s learned to love. Scott’s return from the North Pole, however, has a second purpose as well: to help his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), whose rebelliousness at school has earned the ire of his no-nonsense principal, Carol Newman (Elizabeth Mitchell). It comes as no surprise that it will be Ms. Newman that Scott romances while getting his son back on the right track. But there’s yet another wrinkle: to keep the toy factory humming in his absence, Scott lets himself be talked into creating a plastic duplicate of himself to run the Pole in his stead. Unfortunately, the replica (also played by Allen, in heavy makeup) grows rigidly rule-obsessed, and before long he’s turned into a petty dictator. Scott, Carol and Charlie will have to get back to Santa’s village in time to defeat the fake Claus and his minions and arrange a quick marriage ceremony if kids are to receive presents rather than lumps of coal on the big morning.
Two out of the three elements present in this composite work quite well. The romantic plot, though predictable enough–Scott and Carol are like oil and water at the start, and it’s only gradually that she warms to him after much banter and bickering–develops some genuine warmth, largely because Allen and Mitchell make a good team. The script builds a few too many heart-tugging, ostentatiously magical moments into their courtship, but they still carry them off. The relationship between Scott and Charlie is okay too, even if the reasons behind the kid’s attitude come across as artificial. Unfortunately, the business about the renegade duplicate grows far too loud and frenetic to afford much pleasure. As played, in the broadest strokes and the most stentorian tones, by Allen, the latex Santa is, with the exception of a few moments (for example, a football game in which he demolishes some elves), an obnoxious bore. That means that the latter part of the picture has more low points than high ones. Some may also take umbrage at the commercial conception of Christmas that underlies the plot, with its emphasis on gift-giving–but it’s hard to imagine how any movie about Santa could avoid that (even “Miracle on 34th Street” didn’t, in the end).
And there are compensations. Allen has the gruff charm bit down pat, and Mitchell moves easily from hard-edged administrator to sweet helpmate. Lloyd remains a likable fellow, though he’s grown a lot over eight years, and Judge Reinhold and Wendy Crewson have fun with the stiffness of his mother and stepdad. On the North Pole front, David Krumholtz and Spencer Breslin will delight the tykes in the audience, as will the animatronic/animated reindeer, especially the wacky Comet; adults will probably be more taken with the other legendary figures–Mother Nature, the Easter Bunny, Cupid, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy–who show up to confer with Santa over common problems. Art Lafleur is especially winning as the Tooth Fairy, who becomes one of the heroes of the narrative toward the close. Disney is probably working on a spinoff script for him already.
On the technical side, “The Santa Clause 2” is impressive. The North Pole has been lovingly imagined and realized, and the wintry scenes back in the “real world” have a touch of old- fashioned elegance, too. The art direction (by Sandy Cochrane) and production design (by Tony Burrough) combine to create a similar (though not so odd) sort of landscape to that which most audiences found so fetching in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Unfortunately, the whole Bad Santa episode in this picture is reminiscent of the more frantic, oversized aspects of that Jim Carrey holiday flick, too. Happily, there’s enough in “Santa Clause 2” on more modest and human a scale to offset the coarser elements. Like its predecessor, it’s no classic, but it provides a reasonably attractive holiday contraption, one that families looking for a clean, kid-friendly outing should investigate.