The Santa Clause 2: Carefree Christmas

With Disney announcing a new series based on The Santa Clause for Disney+, produced by and starring Tim Allen, I figured it’s as good a time as any to talk about why The Santa Clause 2 is yearly Christmas viewing at my house. On paper, the film is crass, almost suffocatingly profit-driven. Yet, the further it goes, the harder it becomes to criticize, as Christmas becomes. I've heard the film called "juvenile" and "charming" and "joyous" and a hundred other adjectives. Like Christmas, it's a little of it all – it's one of the few films to capture a season that is equally defined by Hark, the Herald Angels Sing and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. It's equal parts heartwarming and self-aware, like a sitcom in a Norman Rockwell painting. Balancing that tone required one magnificent walking wad of dad jokes to smirk off the season. He ends up creating it in the process (at least, at my house he does).

I doubt that whoever the mercenary producer was who came up with the idea of returning Tim Allen to duty as Lord Christmas had counted on the director Michael Lembeck being as genuinely well-meaning as he is. Watching him mull over deleted scenes in the film’s DVD commentary, talking about “flow” and “pacing” in Santa Clause 2, is the DVD commentary equivalent of watching cookies bake. Lembeck had only made television comedies at the time and no one told him that this film, his theatrical directorial debut, was supposed to be a quaint moneymaker. He went at it like he believed in it, and it's that belief that makes it as good as it is. The best compliment I can think to give it is that I would like the movie more with all those scenes in it.

They could not have negatively affected the film's mood, which is already stitched together from random feelings. Whatever the plot establishes as a reason for Scott Calvin (Allen) to lose his ability to be Santa (“the de-Santification process has begun!”) and be forced to find a Mrs. Claus before Christmas, it only matters at the beginning, when the film needs a reason for him to leave the North Pole. The script is so forgetful that his son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd, the same kid from the first film, regardless of whether his acting talent increased), being on the “naughty” list is never brought up again after Scott leaves the North Pole to visit him, not even to get on the “nice” list at the end in an aside, with a little animated twinkle. The machine of the film, made by a director who was as ruthlessly concerned with pacing as Michael Curtiz, completely takes over. It doesn’t remember what motivated the plot any more than the audience does.

The film, like Santa, is at its best in the middle. Scott ends up on earth doing the speed-dating game before Christmas, essentially trying to remember how to be Tim Allen again. One date features Molly Shannon as a Santa fetishist doing a full rendition of “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” retconned for Christmas in a crowded restaurant. Her sweater displays an unnerving graphic of Santa that has Tim Allen’s rosy face; when she scoots her chair back, it honks as Allen’s eyes widen in terror. It would not be more awkward if she was naked, yet it’s permissible in the context of a bad romcom, which themselves are permissible at Christmas. Scenes like that make Lembeck’s attention to “pacing” seem hilarious since the scene is the epitome of pointlessness, yet must be in the movie. It has nothing to do with pacing but only with the feeling of the season, which includes a little awkwardness, that the scene is included. Christmas itself is not perfectly paced.

By contrast, Scott’s relationship with Carol Newman (Elizabeth Mitchell) starts off chilly. One of the film’s plot flaws is that Scott wanting to challenge himself in the dating department is an ill-advised strategy for saving Christmas – the “Mrs. Clause,” as it’s called in the Santa contract, never clarifies that Scott has to fall in love. This one ambiguous criterion would have saved a lot of the film’s believability because it only says that he has to get "married." A shotgun Vegas wedding to Shannon’s Santa admirer, while not personally ideal, might have been worth considering to save Christmas for the sake of the world. Instead, Scott self-imposes the idea of finding his true love in the absence of the script's acknowledgment of its necessity and goes to work on the toughest nut he can crack with one of the hottest pickup lines in film history (“No, no I-I just wh-uh um won I wondered i-if um … i-if you would uh if um if if if do you do you want to go get some noodles? Or pie?”).

Elizabeth Mitchell can make an awkward date seem like magic, in the way that Christmas can make an itchy sweater seem like a blessing. She provides the vital spirit that saves the film, as any holiday is saved – by believing in it. Tim Allen’s comedy is basically a comedy of asides. It’s about his snarky commentary on whatever “else” is going on. Mitchell innocently provides the material for Allen to riff on, and responds to him in a way similar to the way most people do when they realize something they hadn’t thought of before ("That's what I was going to say – that it should be snowing!"). She lets him go off without shaking him down. She’s never annoyed with him, which in a larger sense means that she’s never annoyed to be in Santa Clause 2.

This makes falling in love with her as easy as pie (or noodles) and more than enough to lift the viewer’s spirit over the plot holes in the road. When she rolls over the top of the couch and smiles at Allen’s jokes, she has Julie Newmar energy. When she feels betrayed, the heart of the film seizes up; you want to fix it at all costs. When she believes that Santa loves her (“You love me?” is literally all the writers wrote for her) her face is snowshine. It’s the human equivalent of a ray of sun on a day you never thought would stop being cold. It’s not just the warmth but the unlikeliness that makes you feel special.

Mitchell saves Santa Claus 2 from every mistake the script made. She saves Allen’s advances from seeming cringy by being so unashamedly into them. She saves the idea of pressuring marriage on someone by believing in it as children believe in Christmas. Her transition to belief is the energy that drives the film – it places the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of romcoms in the same season. This is never clearer than in the faculty Christmas party scene, during which Scott breaks up their blue Christmas with board games from everyone’s childhoods (“This is TOSS ACROSS!”). He gives Carol the baby doll she got the last time she believed in Christmas. That’s not particularly difficult to write. It’s Mitchell’s eyes that make the audience think it’s worth believing in again (she reverses the allure in a sense in her role as the Snow Queen on Once Upon a Time, though in some ways it's more like a reprisal).

It all sounds like hot cocoa and marshmallows from that. But the film is missing something, something that prevented the first film from making sense and which unfortunately begins the de-intellectualification process that makes The Santa Clause 2 one of those “don’t think about it” movies, more common at Christmas than any other time of year. The issue becomes apparent when comparing the film’s stated theme – “Seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing” – with how the plot is actually resolved.

In order for that theme to be true, someone would have to believe in something fantastical without seeing it first. That seems like a simple truth but none of the three films in this series ever got that right. In this film, Carol’s transition to believing in Santa Claus occurs through a magic snow globe that shows her the elf village at the North Pole (in the first film, people see that Scott is Santa, and this is what makes them believe it). In either case, the characters aren't given the chance to have faith in something they can’t see – Carol is given the choice to believe in something that she can, which is a logical decision rather than an emotional one. Charlie brings her to the North Pole and she “can’t believe what she’s seeing,” which is not the same thing. Some may interpret the moment as her not being able to see the North Pole until she believes in it, but in that case, it's presented in a situation where the reverse is just as possible. And clarity is important here because that moment resolves her doubts in Scott, after misinterpreting his attempts to tell her that he’s Santa Claus as a way to get into her bed by playing off her childhood. But it does not resolve the audience’s doubts about their relationship itself (unless they don’t think about it).

This is the moment where Lembeck’s obsession with pacing does the film a disservice by prioritizing moving quickly over moving at the speed that would be best for the drama. After telling Scott to leave, Carol should have been distraught and the movie should have taken her point of view for a bit. She might have walked down the halls of her school, noticing for the first time that they look cold and bare without any decorations, which Scott pointed out earlier. She would see the teachers who were grinning like kids at the party now re-conscripted into working through the season at a school where the principal doesn’t believe in Christmas. She might have remembered what it’s like to not believe in it, sitting in her office. And she might have gone to Scott’s door to tell him that even if she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, she does believe in Scott Calvin, and that’s enough (seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing). Mitchell had the ability to make us realize that Carol’s belief in Christmas is her belief in love, both of which she misplaced, and that this belief will make her see things for the joy they really contain. The film just needed to let her. Five screenwriters agreed on the scene where the candy-engorged reindeer lets out a magnificent fart, but none of them stopped to ask if Carol's resolution needed any more thought.

The script acts like it doesn’t have time for a more organic transition, but that limitation was self-imposed. I’ve gone this long without mentioning the toy Santa, Allen’s double performance in the film (triple if you count Scott and Santa separately), for good reason. The toy Santa is not a villain so much as a pacing device, designed to give the film a brisker rhythm and a feeling that there’s more conflict than there is. He’s what makes the film permissible in the eyes of a producer, who would never have allowed a simple character arc about romance and self-discovery to be an entire kids’ film. He also forces Tim Allen to ride piggyback on the Tooth Fairy to stop a plastic Santa despot from enslaving the elves and ruining Christmas, by punching him as the reindeer thump the air towards the crest of the Aurora Borealis. That’s what the kiddies want to see, right?

Allen’s performance as the toy Santa is actually funny – a particular cut away from the romantic drama to the toy Santa addressing the elves in a coat that Stalin would have been proud to be buried in gets a laugh from me every year. Gillis and Woodruff (formerly of the Stan Winston studio) flawlessly handle the prosthetic makeup for the double performance to the point that kids never realize that Tim Allen is behind both rosy noses. And the film does at times benefit from having conflict, from cutting away, from keeping the pacing up. If the film “had” to have a villain, it benefits from keeping him as far away from the emotional action as possible. Even though his part overstays its welcome (he's conspicuously missing from the deleted scenes reel), it has the wacky charm of people having fun making something dumb.

Surprisingly, none of this really matters in Santa Claus 2, not until you’ve seen it as many times as I have. What all this boils down to is not actually a criticism but a secret compliment – I just want the film to last longer. I want Scott and Carol to have twice as many scenes. I want to see Laura (Wendy Crewson) and Neil’s (Judge Reinhold) reactions to Scott being Santa, to help him try to find a girl, to just enjoy the fact that they accept him. I love their deleted scene, where they express playful fear that Christmas will lose its magic – they must be the most accepting, low-stakes wife/ex-husband/husband trio in movie history (their scenes together have the tempo of a playful poly relationship more than stressful family drama). I want to see more from Bernard, the head elf played by David Krumholtz like a Jewish sitcom dad trapped in a 20-year-old body, whose resolution in the film is rushed to the point of being absent. I want more scenes like Scott's Christmas promise to Pamela, a little girl who recognizes him even though he looks like Tim Allen (a rare correct use of the theme). She's so natural that she steals the show from Liliana Mumy, Scott's niece, who's that fine kind of child actor about whom you say she's "sweet" rather than good (this is also an appropriate review of her dad's acting – he played Will Robinson on the original Lost in Space).

I want more from the movie like I want more from Christmas, as imperfect as it is. It just gives you that feeling. And if sequels could learn anything from it, they should take its lead in treating the first film as a given rather than a burden. The Santa Clause 2 never defaults on the conflicts of the first movie. Scott doesn’t have another crisis of being Santa – ironically, he wants to stay being Santa more than anything. For Charlie, people refusing to believe him isn't his problem this time – now, the belief itself has become a burden to him. The script uses the time that passed between the two films as an advantage in new drama rather than an excuse to repeat the old one.

Despite this, the film has the same problems that Christmas does – it’s messy, fleeting, and never quite stays on theme. Is it more heartwarming or ruthlessly commercial? Maybe it can be both, but it requires enough of the first to make up the difference. Tim Allen is never going to be known as a heart trust, but the Santa Clause films gave him a chance to be the best version of himself, that joking dad that makes growing up seem like goofing off, in a world that’s actually okay with it.

The characters being basically untroubled by everything rubs off on me when I watch the film, and I think that’s what becomes the feeling of Christmas in my mind. The Hallmark form of catharsis, which is basically the pleasure of seeing people pleased to be with each other, is a surprisingly effective way to recreate the feelings of the season when you add talented actors (and pace it quickly). What if you asked the most beautiful girl you knew to have noodles and pie with you, and she smiled at you like she smiles at no one, and she thought that being with you was like Christmas? What if you asked her to be fat and happy with you forever and she cried because she’d been waiting for you to ask?

I don’t know if that happens to people (I know it hasn’t happened to me). I just know that believing in it feels like seeing it, because it can’t happen without belief. The film proves its themes with the smiles it can’t help but have, despite occasionally unraveling them with the exposition it thought it needed. I don't know what's going to happen with the Disney+ show – I have a sneaking feeling that it's either going to be so behind the times that it gets underappreciated or so with the times that it misses the magic. Regardless, I watch The Santa Clause 2 every year and every year I’m more appreciative of a basically bad movie that means more well for me than most masterpieces. It's cinematic hot cocoa. I can't be too upset that some of the marshmallows are crunchy.

This is despite the fact that every year, I get increasingly mad that they didn’t call it, “The Second Santa Clause.”

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Walt Disney Pictures

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