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Once more, Tim Allen drops a lump of coal down the chimney.

The Santa Clause, released at the height of Home Improvement's popularity, played like a Very Special Holiday Episode of that now-defunct series -- what might have happened if an eggnog-saturated Tim Taylor fell asleep with visions of sugarplums in his head and woke up sporting a white beard and a suit made of red felt. Tim Allen played Scott Calvin exactly as he had inhabited Tim Taylor, as a macho yutz with a grunt for a laugh and few skills, outside of being able to burn Christmas dinner. Allen thought being on a bigger screen simply meant playing big enough to fill it; it was less a performance than a shrill and amplified interpretation of one he'd been giving for three years on ABC. There was nothing particularly fa-la-la-la-lovely about The Santa Clause -- its surprisingly drab and sophomoric effects were hardly special, it contained at least two truly wretched inspirational pop songs, and it played like Miracle on 34th Street dodging a kidnapping charge. Yet somehow, it became one of those holiday perennials -- meaning it gives Mom and Dad one more option when the baby-sitter's running late. Fine, as long as A Christmas Story's still in the mix.

There is, of course, little reason for The Santa Clause 2, eight years after the original -- save, perhaps, to prove Allen's still a bankable leading man after a string of duds, and to make estimable holiday coin for Disney. The whole thing would be kind of repulsive if it weren't for two things: It's the movie business, so you expect this kind of crass spirit 'round the holidays, and The Santa Clause 2 is a far superior film to the original -- and a more meaningless sentence I will never type.

The first Clause started boldly grim but grew blindingly bright: The distant dad became, in a mere 90 minutes, the World's Greatest Person Ever of All Freaking Time. What bland sentiment, what bald manipulation.

The sequel, directed by a TV refugee and written by a handful of elves, plays like the original in reverse, which at least offers up one genuinely intriguing subplot: It's almost tragic watching a merry magic man slowly morph from Santa to schmuck. And Allen's far more likable for the transformation; the man who didn't believe, in the first movie, is forced to consider and confront his shrinking back down to size. It's always more fun to watch the powerful rendered powerless, and this is nothing if not a comedy about emasculation.

Ordinarily, that would be an issue in a film about a man seeking a woman desperate enough to meet and marry a stranger within a few days, but not here. There's but one single, attractive woman in the entire movie: Elizabeth Mitchell, playing the high school principal who's constantly punishing Santa's son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd, now eight years older and gawkier). Mitchell's Carol Newman is, like Santa's ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson), a reformed believer in Santa Claus; turns out she had some Christmas trauma that rendered her incapable of Santa worship. Little did she realize she'd wind up jingling Santa's bells when she got all growed up.

There's even a little naughty amid all these niceties: Before Santa goes south, he leaves in charge of the North Pole a mechanical twin (Allen in latex), who goes about turning the place into a coal-manufacturing sweatshop. Dressed in black, from beret to boots, he's a merry Mussolini, and it's an oddball kink in an otherwise softball story.

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