This review was updated on Nov. 2, 2006.
Not unlike the shiny snow globe at its center, “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause” is a thing of consummate craftsmanship, a smoothly engineered and fundamentally lifeless object that’s nevertheless capable of giving even the grinchiest moviegoers a brief attack of the warm-and-fuzzies. With Tim Allen stepping back into the Santa suit and Martin Short slyly pocketing every scene as wily nemesis Jack Frost, this harmless addition to Disney’s durable holiday franchise looks set to match its forerunners’ $140 million domestic haul and rack up some serious Christmas bonuses as a yuletide perennial. Ho, ho, ho indeed.
As scripted by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, two of the seven screenwriters credited on “The Santa Clause 2,” pic reps a much cleaner, more streamlined ride than its overstuffed predecessor. Tots may recall in that 2002 film, Scott Calvin (Allen) — having inherited the Santa reins after accidentally bumping off the big guy in the 1994 original — wooed and wed uptight school principal Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) and persuaded her to move up to the North Pole.
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Now the Clauses are expecting a baby (parents can keep themselves awake by imagining the particulars), and Mrs. Claus is a hormonal wreck, feeling both homesick and resentful of her husband’s workaholism as Christmas Eve approaches. “I hope you’re not delivering when I’m delivering,” she huffs.
To cheer up his wife and reassert the importance of family, Santa invites her parents, Bud (a reliably crusty Alan Arkin) and Sylvia (Ann-Margret), to spend Christmas with them at the North Pole. Unable to divulge his secret identity to the in-laws, Santa and his elves, led by head elf Curtis (14-year-old Spencer Breslin, whose voice has dropped an octave since “Santa Clause 2”), conspire to fool Bud and Sylvia into thinking they’re in a less remote region of the frigid north, setting the stage for a predictable storm of Canada jokes (eh?).
Also along for the ride are franchise regulars Wendy Crewson and Judge Reinhold as Santa’s ex-wife Laura and her husband Neil, and adorable moppet Liliana Mumy as their wide-eyed daughter, Lucy. Breslin’s younger sister Abigail also pops up in a small role as an elf, though she regrettably shares no screen time with Arkin, her co-star from “Little Miss Sunshine.” As Santa’s teenage son Charlie, whose relationship with his father was the emotional focal point of the first two pics, Eric Lloyd has little more than a cameo this time around.
In a much more interesting development, meddlesome usurper Jack Frost (Short), jealous that he does not have a holiday of his own, like Santa does, offends the Council of Legendary Figures headed by Mother Nature (Aisha Tyler) and Father Time (Peter Boyle). Under the pretext of doing community service by working alongside Santa’s elves, Jack quietly wreaks havoc on Santa’s toy-making operation and, eventually, his ever-delicate family life.
A portly package of giddy, childlike enthusiasm and middle-age anxiety, Allen remains as warm, lovable and refreshingly human a St. Nick as ever. Yet it’s Short whose energetic show of villainy shakes the film to life, adding a much-needed shot of bourbon to this bland eggnog. Sporting a two-faced grin and mini-icicles attached to his eyebrows, Short revels in Jack Frost’s mincing manner, purring insinuations and multiple smirky asides, even uncorking his musical-theater pizzazz for a Broadway-style number.
Jack sets out to exploit the eponymous “escape clause” in Santa’s contract, using the big guy’s personal snow globe to trick him into renouncing his identity. What follows is a surprisingly brief “It’s a Wonderful Life”-esque speculation, illogical even by the standards of cinematic time travel, that imagines what would have happened had Jack — instead of Scott Calvin — become Santa.
Apparently, the North Pole would have been converted into a gaudy theme park — allowing the pic to explicitly critique the greed and crass consumerism that have become part and parcel of the holiday season. That’s pretty rich coming from a film whose production design (by Richard J. Holland) itself resembles a mall display run amok, and whose overall aesthetic suggests no expense was spared in the wardrobe, makeup and visual effects departments.
Michael Lembeck directs the action with a surer touch and more consistent tone than he brought to “Santa Clause 2,” and effortlessly pulls off the pic’s sentimental, life-affirming moments without tugging too hard.