Allen Delivers Belly Laughs In Amusing `Santa Clause'

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XXX "The Santa Clause," with Tim Allen, Wendy Crewson, Judge Reinhold and Eric Lloyd. Directed by John Pasquin. Alderwood, Aurora, Broadway Market, Crossroads, Enumclaw, Everett Mall, Factoria, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Metro, Mountlake 9, Puyallup, Renton Village, SeaTac Mall, Snohomish. "PG" - Parental guidance suggested; some mature humor. -----------------------------------------------------------------

You'd have to be a mean ol' Grinch to level any serious complaints at "The Santa Clause," a smoothly enjoyable comedy that gets the holiday movie season off to an easygoing start. And if you're a fan of Tim Allen and his phenomenally popular TV sitcom, "Home Improvement," you'll be a step ahead of those of us discovering Allen on the big screen.

This is Allen's movie debut, and it's easy to see why his show is a ratings smash. There's an effortless quality to his humor, but it's also got a quietly urgent edge to it, as if being funny were the defense mechanism he developed while serving a real-life jail term for a drug offense. You get the sense that this guy's been through something, and his comedy is richer for it.

Whatever the source of Allen's humor, he puts it to good use as Scott Calvin, a divorced toy company executive whose young son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) prefers his mom (Wendy Crewson) and psychiatrist stepfather (Judge Reinhold) to uneasy visits with his self-centered dad. When dropped off at his dad's house for Christmas eve, Charlie begs his mom to pick him up at sunrise the next morning.

What starts as a typically strained holiday turns into a fantastic night for true believers. When an accident puts the real Santa Claus out of action, Scott (whose initials match Santa's monogrammed pajamas) is recruited for the job in accordance with the Santa Clause, a contractual obligation stating that whoever dons Santa's suit will automatically assume his duties.

Scott's not exactly thrilled with the responsibility, but he warms up to the job when a trip to the North Pole enlightens him to the joyous privilege of being Santa. He's got a year to prepare for next Christmas, and thanks to the Santa Clause, he's able to get closer to his son as the holiday approaches. He also begins to look like jolly ol' Saint Nick, and making Allen convincingly chubby is one of the comedic twists that make "The Santa Clause" comparable to "Mrs. Doubtfire," which also drew its comedic inspiration from the desire to mend a broken family.

All of this is polished with formulaic gloss, and one can't help but wonder what happens to all of those decommissioned Santas. But there's a giddy logic to "The Santa Clause" that turns the aged yet childlike elves of the North Pole into equal-opportunity employers. Making his big-screen debut, veteran "Home Improvement" director John Pasquin has a firm lock on the material. And although an originally darker screenplay has been softened by Disney, "The Santa Clause" has been tailored to fit Allen without being dulled in the process.

The movie's mix of fantasy is also finely tuned, from the lavish expanse of Santa's underground workshop (a marvelous set designed by Carol Spier) to the bossy pragmatism of the reindeer (especially Comet), which don't seem to mind a newly designed sleigh capable of vertical takeoff. It's little touches like this that make all the difference. When so many other comedies are falling flat, "The Santa Clause" has enough cumulative laughs to make it a likely holiday hit.