It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that Disney’s “Santa Clause” franchise has run out of steam, since it never had much to begin with. But with this third installment the series about an ordinary guy who’s assumed the red coat of Saint Nick has certainly run out of ideas. The plot that Ed Decter and John J. Strauss have come up with is essentially just a reworking of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” with Jack Frost replacing Jack Skellington as the ambitious but misguided fellow who steals Santa’s role but proves incapable of filling his boots. But while “The Escape Clause” copies Burton’s delightful animated picture narratively, it’s totally devoid of the wit and visual panache of its model, a gaudy but bland lump of coal in this year’s cinematic holiday stocking.
The hook of the script is that is that Scott Calvin, the current Santa (Allen) is stressed over his upcoming delivery schedule and the pregnancy of wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell), who’s in turn upset over his workaholic ways. He tries to make her feel better by bringing some guests to the North Pole–her parents (Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin), along with his ex-wife (Wendy Crewson), her husband (Judge Reinhold) and daughter (Liliana Mumy). Unfortunately, their arrival coincides with the machinations of the ambitious Frost (Martin Short), a megalomaniac who’s angling to displace Santa while pretending to help him. Jack takes advantage of Scott’s funk to trick him into renouncing his Clausdom, leading to a weird “It’s a Wonderful Life” time-reversal interlude in which he sees what Frost has done to the Santa persona over the twelve years he’s possessed it–turning the North Pole into a theme park and eschewing the whole gift-giving tradition in favor of something more profitable. Naturally Scott has to come up with a scheme to undo Frost’s nefarious takeover and restore “the spirit of Christmas.”
The truth here, of course–one might be tempted to call it ironic though it’s too obvious and shallow for such a word–is that “Santa Clause 3” is yet another condemnation of the commercialization of Christmas that’s actually nothing more than an example of what it purports to deplore. And a bad example, at that. It feeds off the necessity for parents to find something, anything, with a festive holiday look to amuse their children with during the overhyped holiday season, but proves so lackadaisically constructed, flatly directed and sloppily played that, with its elaborate visuals that resemble a mutated department store window display, it becomes a drag after ten minutes or so. It’s like one of those toys that breaks down almost immediately after the wrapping paper has been ripped from it and it falls into a child’s hands. And by the time it reaches that dreadful time-reversal interlude–even worse that “Click”–it’s like one you want to throw against the wall.
The only spark of amusement in this garish but drab movie comes from Short, who (at least until his unhappy reformation at the close) has a field day smirking and whining his way through Frost’s slimy malevolence. Although his big number–a Broadway-style rendition of “New York, New York” he performs at the theme park–falls flat, otherwise his shtick plays pretty well. But Allen’s false enthusiasm gets old fast, and the rest of the cast, including Spencer Breslin as Curtis, the chief elf, is pretty much wasted–even Reinhold, Ann-Margret and Arkin, whose standard-issue grumpy performance here resembles his rote work in “Firewall” more than his exceptional one in “Little Miss Sunshine.” (His co-star in the latter, Abigail Breslin, has a small part here, but they don’t get together, unhappily.) Once again the movie has been given the candy-colored, greeting-card look familiar from the earlier installments (Richard J. Holland was production designer, Charlie Daboub and Gregory A. Berry art directors, Don Diers set decorator and Ingrid Ferrin costumer), but Robbie Greenberg’s cinematography shows little sparkle, and George S. Clinton’s brutally intrusive score is a definite drawback.
At least the subtitle of “The Santa Clause 3” is appropriate. The movie’s only an hour and a half long, but you’ll certainly be eying the exit long before it’s over.