The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

Starring Tim Allen, Martin Short, Elizabeth Mitchell and Ann-Margaret. Directed by Michael Lembeck.
Running Time: 92 minutes
Rated: Rated G.
Live action films that are suitable for very young children are becoming increasingly rare. Many animations have become darker and more sophisticated, and even films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have sinister elements that can frighten pre-school children who are used to the Wiggles and ABC Kids. This makes the clumsily titled but charmingly innocuous The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause all the more welcome in the lead-up to Christmas.

Like its prequels, The Santa Clause 3 retains most of the magic of the Santa myth, while adapting the story to today's brave new world of blended families and global marketing.

As in Santa Clause 1 and 2, Tim Allen (Jungle 2 Jungle, Christmas With the Cranks), reprises the role of Scott Calvin, an 'ordinary Joe' transformed by sheer chance into the legendary figure of Santa, who along the way learns both the joy of commitment and the importance of reading the small print of any contract.

In Santa Clause 2 (2002), the clause in small print that Scott/Santa fails to notice before he signs on to become Santa is one which requires him to take a wife before the expiry of his eight year tenure. And this he does, whisking her away from her family in North America, and swearing her to secrecy as they fly by reindeer-driven sleigh to the North Pole, where elves (children with pointy ears and curly toes) make toys in Santa's factory all year long.

The Santa Clause 3 begins with Carol/Mrs Clause (Elizabeth Mitchell) pregnant just before Christmas, and homesick. Affable Scott arranges for Carol's mother and father, Sylvia and Bud (Ann-Margaret and Alan Arkin) to visit her, under the elaborate pretence that his toy factory is in Canada. For good measure his own family comes too: his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson), her husband Neil (Judge Reinhold), and their daughter Lucy (Liliana Mumy).

As is the way with families, not everything goes smoothly in Santa Land. Carol's parents are bemused and querulous: Why are 'Canadians' so short? And why is Scott so neglectful of his pregnant wife?

The answer to the last question lies in the Santa-envy of the film's duplicitous villain Jack Frost (Martin Short, Jungle 2 Jungle). One of a number of legendary figures who govern Santa Land (Cupid, the Sand Man, Father Time, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature etc), Frost feels the main game should be his. He causes the toy factory to malfunction, and in the chaos that ensues, the Escape Clause in Santa's contract is triggered which sees a reversal in time lifted with no apologies at all from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

Santa Clause 3 is not as original as Santa 1 and 2. Few sequels are. But it's good-natured, and inventive in its own way. There is a sprinkling of messages, about the commercialisation of Christmas, and how most families bicker, especially at Christmas-time ('We don't have to be perfect, just as long as we're together!'). But the film's success lies mainly in the homely believability of Santa Land and its characters.

With his white fluffy hair, Christmassy jumpers and wide girth, Tim Allen has grown into his avuncular role of Santa without being cloying. Judge Reinhold's psycho-babbling Dr Neil is a small triumph, and even in minor roles, Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret are standouts. But it is Martin Short's lovable, deliciously devious Jack Frost who carries the show, and will probably be best remembered by both children and their parents.

Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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