With “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Disney is clearly zeroing in on the same holiday B.O. territory it mined so successfully in 1994 with the Tim Allen starrer “The Santa Clause.” This time, the studio is stuffing its Christmas stocking with Allen’s TV co-star, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, in a blandly appealing family comedy. Lacking the high concept and broad-based appeal of the Allen blockbuster, new item will do solid-to-middling B.O., but Santa won’t break his back hauling in the grosses.
“Christmas” might well have been pitched as an adolescent “Scrooged” within the structure of “Around the World in 80 Days.” Taylor Thomas plays Jake, a California college student with a locker full of schemes and a long-suffering girlfriend, Allie (Jessica Biel). Though his father (Gary Cole) had sent him money for a trip home, Jake instead uses it to buy tickets to Mexico. Only when Dad bribes Jake with a long-coveted Porsche does he agree to fly back to New York with Allie at his side. But there’s a catch: Jake must make it home by 6 p.m. Christmas Eve or give up the car.
Naturally, fate intervenes. When one of Jake’s money-making schemes goes awry, several disgruntled school bullies beat him up to teach him a lesson. Jake awakens in the desert dazed and disoriented with a Santa Claus suit glued to his body, a buzzard hovering nearby and no ATM or cell phone in sight. And the clock is ticking: He has just over 48 hours in which to get home.
Meanwhile, Allie, baffled over Jake’s sudden disappearance and minus a plane ticket, agrees to share a cross-country ride with the narcissistic Eddie (Adam LaVorgna), who thinks she’s a fox. As for Jake, he first finds himself in the back seat of a car full of octogenarian ladies. Then he gets a ride with a loopy truck driver named Nolan (Andrew Lauer), who traffics in stolen goods. Pulled over for speeding, Jake uses the Santa suit to his advantage by convincing the cop that they were bound for a local children’s hospital. This incident sets up the film’s funniest bit, in which Jake plays Santa to the kids and dispenses Nolan’s stolen cargo as Christmas gifts.
Along the way, Jake encounters other obstacles, each more bizarre than the last, including a visit to a Bavarian village in Iowa, an impromptu run in a 5K Santa Claus race and a journey in the cargo hold of a plane.
Peculiar plot points notwithstanding, it’s easy to see where this story is going: Jake starts out as a selfish, self-centered, spoiled kid, but as he overcomes various crises, he uses his ingenuity to benefit not only himself but others, too. Jake emerges from his cross-country odyssey a kinder, gentler human being, a loving son and better boyfriend. Arrogance gives way to humility, making this an appropriate, if thoroughly cliched, Christmas morality tale that’s sugar-coated with an attractive cast spouting sitcom-quality dialogue.
TV stars Taylor Thomas (“Home Improvement”) and Biel (“Seventh Heaven”) make a credible, if unexceptional pair of lovebirds. Tech credits are fine, and lenser Hiro Narita fills the frame with bold, saturated Christmas colors appropriate to the film’s material and tone. Canadian locations double adequately for random U.S. sites. Soundtrack makes ample use of holiday standards, ranging from “Here Comes Santa Claus” to the inevitable, titular ballad “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”