Ah, Christmas. What can inspire more magic, more mirth, more mushy movies than this most celebrated of holidays? Disney packaged all the right elements in 1994 in its yuletide hit, "The Santa Clause" - a popular comedy star (Tim Allen of TV's "Home Improvement"), a cute kid (8-year-old Eric Lloyd) and a sweet story about regaining faith in childlike beliefs. Masterful, whimsical production design and special effects tied it all up like a big velvet bow and delivered the movie into the pantheon of Christmas classics.

Now the first movie's producers have brought back all the original characters for a sequel, "The Santa Clause 2." While it's certainly not as lame as some recent attempts to cash in on a hit movie's popularity ("Men in Black 2" comes to mind), its humor is broader than its predecessor's and the focus on family ties is weaker, with returning cast members Judge Reinhold and Wendy Crewson barely making an appearance.

So what's new in "The Santa Clause 2?" A love interest for Santa, high school principal Elizabeth Mitchell (TV's "ER,"), who is meant to come across as a hardhearted headmistress but dissolves too soon into misty vulnerability; a new stepsister for Santa's son Charlie, 7-year-old Liliana Mumy, who runs away with all her scenes; and a whole new subplot in which a life-size toy Santa tries to run the North Pole while the real one goes back home to help Charlie, who's landed on the "naughty" list, and find a wife by Christmas Eve or lose his position as Santa.

The magical North Pole, whose appearance captivated audiences in the first movie, fills the screen for fully half the running time of the sequel. For audiences less than 5 feet tall who thrive on a diet of color-saturated cartoons and slapstick, these scenes are what the movie's all about. Adults may find them a little dizzying, and even the smaller set might be overwhelmed when the substitute Santa creates an army of giant toy soldiers to enforce his new militant agenda. One scene moms and dads will enjoy involves the annual "Council of Legendary Figures," where familiar faces make cameo appearances as the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Father Time, Mother Nature, the Sandman and Cupid.

In the "real-life" scenes, Santa gradually loses weight and facial hair as the deadline for finding a "Mrs. Clause" nears. It's refreshing to see Tim Allen without the foam latex prosthetics, but you can't help but wonder if his onscreen bride felt cheated when he immediately sprouted the full beard and pot belly as soon as the "I do's" were said.

Young Charlie transforms from a sweet little boy with an undying belief in Santa into a troubled teenager in this movie, but the screenwriting team took care to keep his character sympathetic and motivated. His aberrant behavior consists of spraypainting messages decrying the school principal's refusal to spend money on Christmas decorations. By the end of the screenplay, he joins the rest of the characters whose problems have all been neatly solved and passes the mantle of Santa's secret on to his stepsister, perhaps ... dare I say it ... paving the way for a third installment?

"The Santa Clause 2," while completely predictable and a bit too heavy on the campy fantasy, succeeds in one aspect: All the snow, tinsel, magic and warm fuzzy feelings will certainly put audiences in the Christmas spirit ... whether they're ready for it or not. Two and a half stars out of four


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