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Movie Review : Allen's 'Santa Clause' Delivers the Goods

November 11, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few TV stars have made the move to the big screen with such stellar panache as "Home Improvement's" Tim Allen in Disney's lavish yet venturesome, sweet-and-sour holiday fantasy "The Santa Clause," a film that plays the nastiness of adult everyday life against the innocent dreams of childhood.

Although the spirit of Christmas surely prevails, there's a real edge to this picture, yet it doesn't cut out the youngsters who will find so much to embrace in this genuinely imaginative work with its amazing special effects and an enchantingly realized--and immense--Santa's workshop kingdom at the North Pole. "The Santa Clause" is a Christmas picture for the frequently splintered families of the hard-driving '90s.

Eight-year-old Charlie (Eric Lloyd) is not looking forward to spending Christmas Eve with his father, Scott (Allen), with good reason. Scott may be a marketing whiz with a toy company, but that doesn't mean he's attuned to kids. He's a divorced workaholic who's never made time for his son and his ex-wife, Laura (Wendy Crewson), now married to Neal (Judge Reinhold), a decent but slightly sanctimonious psychiatrist who is the principal target of Scott's incessant sarcasm. What's more, Charlie has just begun doubting the existence of Santa Claus. He's really depressed after his father burns the turkey, and they have Christmas dinner at the only restaurant in their picture-book suburb still open: Denny's.

Suddenly, after father and son have gone to bed, they hear a clatter on Scott's roof: It's Santa and his reindeer! But Santa slips, falling to the snow-covered ground and telling Scott, before he evaporates, that he must don Santa's suit, and that the reindeer will guide him on completing the delivery of his Christmas packages.

What Scott doesn't realize is that the clothes make the man: Put on Santa's outfit--even reluctantly--and you become Santa. Although aided by Hollywood wizardry, Allen makes that transformation come from within; his is a fine, wide-ranging portrayal of a man awakening to his emotions. There's real poignancy and irony in Scott's ultimate fate that will be appreciated by grown-ups without being a downer for kids.

Writers Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti, former stand-up comics both, reportedly originally came up with a far darker story, but enough serious shading remains to set off the sentimental aspects of "The Santa Clause" to just the right degree. The sense of reality they bring to Charlie's life makes it all the more possible for youngsters of his age to go along with the movie's infinite capacity for magic in making Santa and his annual rounds plausible.

At the same time the writers, as they evoke the spirit of Christmas (the key purpose of all such holiday tales), have created grown-ups with whom adults can identify only too easily. In short, "The Santa Clause" proceeds from an exceedingly well-thought-out script, which in turn has been brought to life by "Home Improvement's" original producer and director, John Pasquin, in a notably demanding feature debut that has required him to keep in balance human feelings and values and large-scale fantasy razzle-dazzle.

All of the film's technical and creative contributions are top-notch, but as it should be, it's the people who win us over. Lloyd matches Allen's impact with a portrayal of an intelligent boy caught up in incredible events. Adding crucial normalcy to the picture are Crewson and Reinhold's perfectly decent couple. David Krumholtz brings an earthy, matter-of-fact quality to the North Pole's head elf, Bernard. You don't have to be a big fan of holiday fare to come away impressed--and, most important, moved--by "The Santa Clause."

* MPAA rating: PG, for a few crude moments. Times guidelines: It is appropriate for all ages.

'The Santa Clause'

Tim Allen: Scott

Eric Lloyd: Charlie

Wendy Crewson: Laura

Judge Reinhold: Neal

A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director John Pasquin. Producers Brian Reilly, Jeffrey Silver, Robert Newmyer. Executive producers Richard Baker, Rick Messina, James Miller. Screenplay by Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick. Cinematographer Walt Lloyd. Special makeup and animatronic effects Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. Editor Larry Bock. Costumes Carol Ramsey. Santa fat suit Linda Benavente-Notaro. Music Michael Convertino. Production designer Carol Spier. Art director James McAteer. Set decorator Elinor Galbraith. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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