Extended Thoughts on ‘The Santa Clause 2’
Directed by Michael Lembeck
Written by Don Rhymer, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Ed Decter, John J. Strauss
Starring Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell, Spencer Breslin, David Krumholtz, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd
Why wait eight years between the original Santa Clause and its follow-up, The Santa Clause 2? This is a question I’ve been asking myself over the last week, before I watched the film for our podcast, during our recording, and now. I didn’t bring it up on the show, because I imagine the question would’ve just floated out into virtual nothingness. But I wonder. The first film opened in November of 1994 to moderate critical acclaim and strong box office returns. I honestly don’t remember how “angry” I might’ve sounded on the podcast last year (Gabe described me as such in our discussion this week), but when my wife puts the original on, I manage to smile or chuckle at Tim Allen’s fast-talking charm. I’m not particularly sure I buy him as a father in the first film, even though he’d made his career by being a sitcom dad. But it’s a good movie.
And it’s a successful movie. So why wait nearly a decade? It’s not as if Allen’s star had fallen off the horizon. Home Improvement ran on ABC until 1999, and by the end of the decade, he was the voice of Buzz Lightyear, one of the most popular movie characters Disney had ever been remotely tied to. Not all of Allen’s films were huge, but he was a recognizable, relatable star. I’m not saying he was my favorite—though I love his work in Galaxy Quest, most of his non-Toy Story movies are stinkers—but Tim Allen was not a cinematic pariah. And so, though I don’t know the source of the eight-year gap—and feel free to educate me in the comments section, dear reader—I think it worked against The Santa Clause 2.
This is a movie with too much on its plate, perhaps because the filmmakers or Walt Disney Pictures feared that they wouldn’t have enough time with which to appropriately tell each plot they wanted to. I appreciate and almost applaud director Michael Lembeck and the many writers credited to this film (of whom there are seven) for not skimping on plot. As the movie begins, in as close an approximation of real time as possible, Scott Calvin has been Santa Claus for a long time but just now has to worry about a hidden clause in that fateful card he saw back in 1994, one that claims he has to get married by Christmas Eve or else he can no longer be the big fat man. So he needs to return to his old hometown, but there’s another problem at home, too. His son, once an obnoxious 8-year old, is now a sullen 16-year old who’s tagging his school with graffiti. Maybe Charlie is crying out for help the only way he knows how? And once Scott leaves, his two head elves install a duplicate toy Santa as the leader, but he goes out of control quickly, as he decides that all children are naughty because they don’t follow the rules.
That’s a lot for a 105-minute movie. What could go? What should stay? I think the easy answer, though perhaps not the obvious or correct one, is that one of the hometown plots should’ve gone. Scott could go home and the toy Santa could take over at the North Pole, even if Scott was only going back home to deal with his son or just deal with finding a wife fast. Making it so Scott has to worry about both of these plots means the writers have to choose which is more important. And clearly, the winner is the romantic angle. Elizabeth Mitchell, who didn’t have nearly the built-in fanbase then that she does now thanks to her work on Lost, is mostly fine as Carol, the initially hardass principal who eventually is won over by Scott’s magical ways. (That’s literal, by the way. I mentioned this on the show, but if you think about it, Carol doesn’t fall in love with Scott naturally. Oh, sure, they both like Two for the Road and old cars. However, all of the magical flourishes he pulls off exist solely to make her go weak at the knees for him. He’s a cheat!)
Because the movie pays more attention to the romance, Charlie’s very real struggle with his father’s job status ends up being given short shrift. At the end of the film, after we’ve seen Charlie rebel—as much as can be allowed in a Disney movie, of course—and shout at his dad for being an absentee parent, we see him come to a predestined realization that makes no sense at all. He tells his half-sister, who’s at the age that he was when he watched his father become Santa, that knowing this secret and not being able to talk to anyone about it except for her parents isn’t a curse, but a gift. Now, I won’t repeat the word that I wrote in my notes when I heard Eric Lloyd—who, it should be said, is much improved from his work in the first film—say this. But you can probably imagine it, if you’re imagining an 8-letter profane word that begins with “bull.”
I’m not saying that the conclusion itself is what I take issue with. What I take issue with is that the writers came up with the beginning of a conflict—Charlie is acting out and needs Santa Claus to be his dad again—and the end of it. They didn’t really worry about the middle, about providing the transition for Charlie to not only be OK with Scott being essentially a terrible dad thanks to his job, but to be happy with this unassailable fact. Basically, a light switch is flipped for Charlie, but one that we really don’t get to see. Charlie’s still stuck without a dad, and his half-sister Lucy is too young to struggle without an uncle in her life. (And more to the point, she’ll have a lot less to deal with because Scott isn’t her dad. Her struggle would be minimal.) Maybe if more of the movie was dedicated to this story, maybe if the romance didn’t exist, I’d buy the transition more because perhaps it would’ve been expanded appropriately.
But the romance does exist. And it’s, you know, fine. It’s serviceable. It’s there. Quite frankly, the most interesting storyline, simply because it’s trying to be funny and succeeding some of the time, is with the toy Santa. Here, Tim Allen gets to act goofy. He gets to be as over-the-top as Molly Shannon or Spencer Breslin are in their respective roles. (I cannot wait to be done with the third film and not see Breslin overact again. He’s not as intolerable as Lloyd was as a kid in the first film, but he’s playing to the nonexistent back row here.) Even this storyline feels a bit rushed, as it takes nearly 30 minutes for the idea of a duplicate Santa to be introduced. (Also, though I didn’t mention it on the show, it’s hard not to see this storyline as something too similar to the subplot in Toy Story 2 where Buzz sees newer versions of himself who are as rule-oriented as he once was. Pixar did it better.)
So, all in all, we’re left with The Santa Clause 2, a movie that was made by people who maybe didn’t think they’d have enough gas for a third movie. Throw everything in, hope something works, and maybe we’ll get a chance for a new installment. Maybe that was the mentality. (The third film, which I’m not sure I’ve seen all of, introduces Jack Frost and alternate timelines, I think, proving that the writers were well out of gas after the second entry in the franchise.) The problem is that by overstuffing the movie, we can’t fully focus on any one element in The Santa Clause 2. This isn’t a bad movie, and I am sorely tempted to say it’s a mite better than its predecessor. But it could’ve been so much better, if it had been a more focused, balanced story.