Arriving just in time for the renewed debate over the apportioning of screenwriting credits by the WGA, “The Santa Clause 2” sports a whopping seven credited writers, just two fewer than the number of Santa’s reindeer. Yet film exudes a sense of exhaustion on their behalf, as if those many scribes could barely pull this sure-fire sleigh across the screen. But, that won’t matter much to pic’s target audience of tiny tots with their eyes all aglow; as the season’s first holiday-themed pic, “Santa Clause” seems sure to gross north of the 1994 original’s $100 million-plus domestic haul, playing well through Christmas and the new year. But if ever more proof were needed that sequels aren’t equals. . .
“The Santa Clause” (1994) was a runaway smash that launched the bigscreen career of Tim Allen. A full-on charmer, pic told story of Allen’s character — a divorced and somewhat irresponsible dad — who “became” Santa Claus after inadvertently knocking the former one from his roof. A sequel was planned, but because of the vagaries of the studio development process, it is only just now arriving. And like so many other belated follow-ups (“Men in Black II,” most recently), that extra time has allowed for an inordinate number of writers and execs to take a hack at the material, systematically pulverizing most of the original’s simple delights. “The Santa Clause 2” is a movie conscious, at every waking moment, of trying to out-do its predecessor.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that there’s enough material here for two or three (or four) movie sequels, and that the disparate ideas never form a smooth assemblage. At the North Pole (an enormous, if slightly gaudy set designed by Tony Burrough), it’s just 28 days until Christmas and smack in the thick of Santa’s busiest season. All is well until Santa’s head elf (David Krumholtz) informs Santa of a heretofore unknown stipulation in Santa’s employment contract: the so-called “Mrs.” Clause, which states that Santa must take a bride by no later than Christmas Eve, or Christmas will be canceled and Santa will be out of a job. Indeed, the “de-Santafication” process, which sees Santa’s appearance returning closer and closer to that of Scott Calvin (Allen’s civilian alter-ego), has already begun.
But, as nothing in “The Santa Clause 2” is nearly so simple, the writers have concocted a second pressing dilemma for Santa/Scott: Scott’s teenage son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) has popped up on the dreaded “naughty” (as opposed to “nice”) list after vandalizing his school’s gymnasium. But wait, there’s more: a subplot about Santa creating a toy clone of himself (also played by Allen) to keep things running at the Pole while he’s taking care of the first two dilemmas. In this subplot, Toy Santa becomes crazed and dictatorial, trading in his Santa suit for a soldier’s uniform and declaring that all children will receive only coal in their stockings this year.
Reprising his role, Allen is the burst of comic jet fuel that keeps this rickety enterprise watchable, even if you’re more than 4 years old. Allen projects a warm, fatherly charisma, but he can also be a manic comic force, and his Toy Santa is arguably more menacing than the contract-killer Allen played earlier this year in “Who Is Cletis Tout?” But Allen is too good for this wanting material.
There’s an almost-charming romance at the heart of “The Santa Clause 2,” between Scott and Charlie’s school principal (Elizabeth Mitchell). And there’s a borderline-cloying, but ultimately quite touching scene, in which Scott uses his Santa powers to provide the principal and all of her faculty with treasured mementos from their once-upon-a-time childhoods. But like all of pic’s pleasures, these are fleeting ones, as director Michael Lembeck’s pic is too restless to spend much time in any one place.
Pic is festooned with cute, mugging kids; lots of jazzy redos of beloved Christmas tunes on the soundtrack; and enough tug-at-your-heartstrings moments to make an entire theater feel warm on a blustery winter afternoon. Beyond which, creature-effects maestros Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. (they have operated the “Alien” puppets in several films of that series) have out-done themselves designing the weight-fluctuating Santa, his plastic clone and an assortment of new characters (including a life-size Easter Bunny). That may be enough, no matter that so little of it resonates with any real feeling — something that even a 4-year-old might pick up on.