Although it faces tough sledding in a crowded market of family-friendly features, "Jack Frost" is a slickly packaged and engagingly sentimental fantasy-comedy that stands out as one of the season's most pleasant surprises. Pic offers a shrewdly balanced mix of humor, high concept and heart tugging, along with some amusingly impressive special effects.

Although it faces tough sledding in a crowded market of family-friendly features, “Jack Frost” is a slickly packaged and engagingly sentimental fantasy-comedy that stands out as one of the season’s most pleasant surprises. Pic offers a shrewdly balanced mix of humor, high concept and heart tugging, along with some amusingly impressive special effects from the wizards of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and Industrial Light and Magic. Warner Bros. can reasonably expect upbeat opening-weekend grosses. After that, however, strong word of mouth will be necessary to avoid a quick B.O. meltdown.

Top-billed Michael Keaton is an inspired choice for the title character, even though the actor doesn’t appear on camera for most of the pic. Opening scenes introduce Jack Frost as a Colorado-based rock musician who spends much of his time on the road away from his small-town home. The gigs are plentiful, and the band is well-received during concerts, but breakthrough success remains elusive. Gabby (Kelly Preston), Jack’s loving wife, is passionately supportive of her husband’s struggle to fulfill his lifelong dreams. But even she is upset when Jack’s workaholic ways keep him from major events in the life of Charlie (Joseph Cross), their 12-year-old son.

To make amends after once again missing one of Charlie’s hockey games, Jack gives the boy a harmonica with supposedly “magical” qualities.

“Whenever you play this,” Jack says, “no matter where I am, I can hear you.”

The charming thing about this scene is the warm chemistry generated between Keaton and Cross. As they interact, it’s quite obvious that Jack is making up the “magical harmonica” story even as he tells it, and Charlie is thoroughly charmed without believing a word of his father’s whopper.

But the improvised words come back to haunt the errant rock musician. While driving home through a snowstorm to spend Christmas with his family, Jack swerves off the road and is killed. One year later, a crestfallen Charlie builds a snowman — much like the snowman he and Jack built during the previous yuletide season — and plays a few notes on the harmonica. Sure enough, Jack hears the summons, and comes home. There’s a slight catch, however: Jack’s spirit now resides within the snowman.

Working from a screenplay credited to Mark Steven Johnson, Steve Bloom, Jonathan Roberts and Jeff Cesario, first-time feature helmer Troy Miller plays the situation for maximum laughs without ever obscuring the story’s bittersweet undercurrents. Once he gets past his initial terror at encountering a snowman who talks like his dead father, Charlie is greatly pleased to spend some quality time with Jack. And since Jack is no longer distracted by his music, he can concentrate on giving his son a few hockey pointers and aiding the boy in snowball battles with a schoolyard bully.

To be sure, Gabby is deeply concerned about her son’s disturbing habit of talking to a snowman. (Early on, Jack and Charlie agree to shield her from news of Jack’s magical return.) And Charlie’s classmates and teammates think his behavior is more than a little odd, especially when he starts to wander about their small town while dragging the snowman on a sleigh. But the real complications don’t begin until an unseasonable warm spell hits the area.

Jack is worried about melting — and deeply afraid that, once again, he’ll miss one of Charlie’s hockey games.

At heart, “Jack Frost” is yet another supernatural story about a fellow who cheats death, or gets a temporary reprieve from the afterlife, to tie up loose ends with a loved one. Miller — heretofore best known for directing Billy Crystal in opening segments for the 1997 and ’98 Academy Awards — applies a gentle but firm touch as he interweaves the broad comedy and soft sentiment. Nothing, not even a predictably rousing hockey-rink victory, is allowed to get out of hand. On the debit side, however, Miller hard-sells the poignancy in the final scenes without fully preparing the audience for the inevitability of Jack’s departure.

By turns wistful and wisecracking, Keaton is appealingly restrained when on camera as the human Jack, and delightfully droll as the voice for a marvelously expressive, 5-1/2-foot animatronic puppet. Cross and Preston offer strong support, as does Mark Addy (“The Full Monty”) as a family friend and former member of the Jack Frost Band.

Tech values are everything they must be for the fantasy to be credible as well as compelling. Veteran lenser Laszlo Kovacs enhances the storybook appeal of the pic’s setting, a fictional winter wonderland known as Medford, Colo. Any resemblance between that name and Bedford Falls, the small town of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” probably isn’t coincidental.

Jack Frost

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an Azoff Entertainment/Canton Company production. Produced by Mark Canton, Irving Azoff. Executive producers: Matthew Baer, Jeff Barry, Richard Goldsmith, Michael Tadross. Directed by Troy Miller. Screenplay, Mark Steven Johnson, Steve Bloom, Jonathan Roberts, Jeff Cesario.

With

Jack Frost - Michael Keaton Gabby Frost - Kelly Preston Mac MacArthur - Mark Addy Charlie Frost - Joseph Cross
Camera (Technicolor), Laszlo Kovacs; editor, Lawrence Jordan; music, Trevor Rabin; production designer, Mayne Berke; costume designer, Sarah Edwards; sound (Dolby Stereo), Gregory King; special effects supervisor, Steve Galich; visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri. Reviewed at Cinemark's Tinseltown Westchase Theater, Houston, Texas. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 95 MIN.
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