The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is yet another example of the law of diminishing returns. The Santa Clause was charming and fresh, while the subpar The Santa Clause 2 lacked both the magic and charm of the original film. Unfortunately, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause further sucks the life out of the once-promising franchise. Additionally, this third Santa Clause movie is proof-positive that the folks over at Di$ney do not care about quality as long as they can earn a few quick bucks from producing crap. This is hardly surprising, however, considering Di$ney’s glut of shameful straight-to-video sequels (including sequels to such classics asThe Lion King and Bambi), but at least those films bypassed theatres. Alas, The Santa Clause 3 is a straight-to-video feature that was given a theatrical release. It may be entertaining for five-year-olds, but the film will prove to be sheer torture for the unlucky parent/s forced to endure it for the sake of their kids.

As usual, this entry in the series commences with Christmas fast approaching. Happily married, Scott (Allen) – a.k.a. Santa Claus – and Carol (Mitchell) are about to become parents, and Carol is feeling homesick. To provide Carol with human company as labour day draws near, Scott decides to invite her parents to the North Pole. As it happens, Scott’s in-laws are not aware that their son-in-law is Santa Claus – they’ve been led to believe that he’s a Canadian toy manufacturer. To solve the problem, Scott decorates the North Pole to look like Canada, and flies in the in-laws for a visit. Also along for the ride are Scott’s ex-wife Laura (Crewson), her new husband Neil (Reinhold) and their daughter Lucy (Mumy). Meanwhile, Jack Frost (Short) has shown up in Santaland with the goal of convincing Scott to invoke the “escape clause” in his contract and step down. This would leave the way open for Jack to assume the suit and the power that comes with it. Thus, Jack Frost begins attempting to turn Scott’s life into a frenetic nightmare.

While the previous films owed a debt to A Christmas Carol, The Santa Clause 3 borrows from It’s a Wonderful Life, with Scott facing the alternate reality of what would have happened if he never became Santa. There is potential in this idea, but a lot of potential remains untapped. In all likelihood, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause will turn more stomachs than any Saw or Hostel movie due to its shoddy production values, vapid attempts at feel-good sentiment, and a wrongheaded plotline that criticises commercialism while simultaneously embracing it. All of the characters are vacant-eyed and one-dimensional, and they go through the paces with barely a modicum of genuine human feelings. In the case of Jack Frost, he’s more disturbingly creepy than funny. The plot takes a full hour to find itself, as it spends way too long running in circles without doing anything interesting or entertaining. Once the story gets to where it’s headed, the plot dilemma is literally resolved within minutes.

Television veteran Michael Lembeck was at the helm of The Santa Clause 3. Four years prior, Lembeck made his feature-film debut with The Santa Clause 2. Thus, The Santa Clause 3 suffers from the same flaws as its immediate predecessor; the film looks as if it was made cheaply, with actors, set design and special effects which would be embarrassing in a made-for-TV fare. There is no energy or joy in the filmmaking, nor is there any wit in Ed Decter and John J. Strauss’ script. Instead, every flat-looking, laughless frame of the film is permeated with the strong sense that everyone was begrudgingly fulfilling their duties for the money. Rather than any genuine laughs, The Santa Clause 3 offers bathroom gags (the reindeer like to fart a lot). Meanwhile, the relentlessly jaunty score underlines every potential joke and generates schmaltzy moments worthy of cringes. This dreck was made for entertainment purposes, but it failed to keep this reviewer interested. Plus, there’s an enormous head-scratching plot hole: why would Santa invite his in-laws to visit THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS?! One would think a slightly less chaotic day would be more appropriate. Any other day of the year, perhaps?

Star Tim Allen – who probably owes Disney another 10 or 20 movies until his soul is freed from bondage and he can die in peace – is still surprisingly likable as Scott Calvin. Still, Allen phoned in his performance here and was clearly in it for the pay-cheque. In the years preceding The Santa Clause 3, Allen featured in such movies as Joe SomebodyThe Shaggy DogZoom and Christmas with the Kranks. These titles speak for themselves. Does Allen have any dignity at all? Most of the other actors look disinterested, with returning cast members Elizabeth Mitchell, Eric Lloyd, Wendy Crewson and Judge Reinhold all coming across as painfully wooden. And then there’s Spencer Breslin, who painfully mugs in front of the camera while regurgitating dialogue with a lisp which renders his words unintelligible. Martin Short afforded a degree of flair to his generic villain role, but he’s too mean-spirited for a G-rated family movie. Yet again, the adorable Liliana Mumy is the brightest spot of the cast.

What happened to the charm of the original The Santa Clause, and the genuine sweetness? Here, these elements feel forced and artificial. The film is formulaic and predictable (you know exactly when Carol will go into labour, for example), and the plot troubles are resolved all too easily. From the fake-looking sets to the chintzy digital effects to the tedious plot to the contrived emotion, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is a sorry excuse for a children’s picture which ranks alongside Deck the Halls and Christmas with the Kranks as one of the most misguided and disingenuous Christmas pictures of the noughties. The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is an obvious cash grab film which banked solely on the franchise name to woo audiences into buying into it.