These movies -- the 1994 original and the 2002 sequel, both starring Tim Allen as an ordinary guy who inherits the job of Santa Claus -- have never been the highest-quality family entertainment, but they've always been passable. This one feels strained, like a troupe of actors being forced at gunpoint to perform comedy. The musical score is relentlessly jaunty, underlining every potential joke, but the jokes themselves are halfhearted.
The story this time is that Santa is being harassed by Jack Frost (Martin Short), a hyperactive troublemaker who is jealous that he doesn't get his own holiday that way Cupid and the Easter Bunny and Santa do. He sets out to sabotage Santa's holiday preparations in the hopes that St. Nick will exercise his contract's escape clause and leave the door open for Jack to take over. He wants to call it "Frostmas," which doesn't make any sense, since it's not called "Clausmas" now.
Santa's life is pretty hectic even without Jack's meddling. His wife, Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell), is expected to give birth any day, and her parents having been nagging her to let them come visit. They don't know she's married to Santa Claus; they think "Scott" is a toymaker in Canada. Santa's solution is to decorate the North Pole to look like Canada and fly the in-laws in for a visit.
You have to wonder how a man this dumb manages to handle the delivery of millions of toys every year. First of all, changing the signage on the buildings in Santa's Village is useless when the place is still crawling with elves. Secondly, if you're Santa Claus, why would you invite the in-laws to visit the DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS? Isn't there maybe a slightly less chaotic day they could come? Like, I don't know, ANY OTHER DAY OF THE YEAR?
The in-laws are played by Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret, who are only seven years apart in age. I mention it because seeing them on the big screen, you'll think he's 90 and she's 60. There's a creepy/weird scene where Jack hits on Ann-Margret by making her sing the line "Jack Frost nipping at your nose" over and over again. Then he asks if she wants to be his elf, which sounds naughty, except that earlier he asked a little girl the same thing. So it's just weird, which is sort of Jack's M.O.
Tim Allen, who owes Disney another 25 movies before his soul is freed from bondage and he can die in peace, is damnably likable -- as in, no matter how bad the movie is, you always kinda like him, dammit. Still, he's phoning this one in. You play Santa Claus once with enthusiasm, twice with affection, three times for a paycheck.
The one doing all the work is Martin Short. He's a loopy presence wherever he goes, and he's just right to play Jack Frost: pesky, over-caffeinated and full of himself. The film's brightest sequence is the one in which he succeeds at becoming Santa and turns the North Pole into a crass, commercialized tourist trap -- an ironic turn of events for a Disney film -- with activities like "shave a reindeer for five dollars."
Again directed by Michael Lembeck and written by two of the six guys responsible for the last one, "The Santa Clause 3" is by far the weakest of the trilogy. The good ideas are gone; now we're left with the crumbs. Fortunately, there's still seven weeks of Christmastime left. Plenty of time to wash the taste out of your mouth.