Dir: Michael Lembeck. US. 2006. 91mins.

Straight-up, wholeheartedly earnest family films thatare not animated nor revolve around some form of animal are few and far between' and of this subset, many are driven only by primary colors and robust sounddesign. But The SantaClause 3: The Escape Clause, the third film in one of the most successful seasonal franchises,seems confident in its purpose and clear and focused in its tone and mission,delivering a lively, if familiar iteration on an old holiday chestnut, courtesylargely of an engagingly villainous performance by Martin Short.

Outside of this franchiseand Toy Story films, Tim Allen's filmcareer has been negligible at best, but 1994's The Santa Clause and its 2002 sequel combined for almost $360 millionworldwide (although only 22% of that came from overseas), with a negligibledrop-off for such a belated follow-up.

The third film in theseries, The Escape Clause, arrives inthe same early November slot as its predecessors at home, and box office shouldbe on par with those movies. Returns will skew heavily toward domesticaudiences, with young families, and with long-playing success reaching to theend of the holiday season in the US.

After having become SantaClaus in the first movie, Scott Calvin (Allen) has continually tried to jugglethe myriad demands of the job with his personal life. The Escape Clause finds Scott taking on new challenges as his extendedfamily continues to grow.

At the risk of giving awayits secret location, Scott invites his in-laws, Sylvia and Bud Newman (Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin) to theNorth Pole to share in the holiday festivities and be near their daughter,Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell), as she prepares for the eagerly anticipated birthof Baby Claus.

The problem, of course, isthat Carol's parents don't know about Scott's secret identity. They just thinkhe's a north-of-the-border toymaker, so the North Pole is disguised as Canada,and this leads to an amusing bit in which all of Santa's elves are instructedto cover up their pointy ears and tack on "ehh'" to theend of every other sentence.

Further complicating mattersare Scott's own blended brood ' ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson),her new husband Neil (Judge Reinhold), their daughter Lucy (LilianaMumy) and Scott's son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) ' who beg togo on a trip of their own, and have to be entertained as well as keep thesecret from the Newmans.

The main complication,though, is Jack Frost (Short), the Iago of the movie.An icy-browed outcast on the Council of Legendary Figures, a group whichincludes Father Time, the Easter Bunny, Cupid, Mother Nature, the Tooth Fairy,Sandman, et al, Jack is envious of Santa's special status, and wants his ownholiday.

When he's rebuffed by thecouncil he hatches a scheme to wreck Christmas and make Scott unwittingly invoke the titular breakaway article, thus freeing the pathfor Jack to become the new Santa Claus and turn the North Pole into anexclusive resort for those who can pay their way onto Santa's "nice" list.

The Escape Clause isn't particularly subtle ' there are still, after all, reindeerflatulence jokes and a good deal of crazy cartoon sound effects ' but screenwritersEd Decter and John J Strauss seemingly trade in thesebroad strokes in only minimally obligatory fashion. Instead they give thepicture a strongly relatable underpinning in the form of Scott's desire to beboth a good husband and father and, of course, a dutiful Santa Claus,responsible as he is for the holiday cheer of childrenthe world over.

Thankfully, too, the moviedoesn't hammer home the over-commercialisation ofChristmas beyond the point of usefulness, perhaps in a nod to the irony thatwould represent in a franchise that's already grossed hundreds of millions ofdollars to date.

The movie benefits from itsmany returning cast members and there's an easy, sincere rapport amongstcharacters that helps elevate certain scenes which could otherwise be viewed asa bit rote. Director Michael Lembeck also returnsfrom The Santa Clause 2, and guidesthe movie with a sure hand.

Newcomer Short, meanwhile,is a good fit opposite Allen's amiable blandness. He brings a smirky, flippant insincerity to the role of Jack Frost.

Ingrid Ferrin'scostumes and the special character effects of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.,who won an Academy Award for their work on DeathBecomes Her, are streamlined and effective,notable largely for their graceful simplicity. Jack Frost's eyebrows arestudded with tiny icicles, and his face rushes to blue when he blows his chillybreath.

Aly & AJ's upbeat Greatest Time OfYear and The Refreshments' I'm TheReal Santa, meanwhile, play audiences out on a high note, over two minutesof bloopers.

Production companies/backers
Walt Disney Pictures
Outlaw Productions
Boxing Cat Films

US distribution
Walt Disney Pictures

International distribution
Executive producers
William W Wilson III
James Miller

Brian Reilly
Bobby Newmyer
Jeffrey Silver

Ed Decter & John J Strauss, based on characterscreated by Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick

Robbie Greenberg

Production design
Richard J Holland

David Finfer

George S Clinton

Main cast
Tim Allen
Elizabeth Mitchell
Martin Short
Spencer Breslin
Liliana Mumy
Alan Arkin
Wendy Crewson
Judge Reinhold
Eric Lloyd
Michael Dorn
Aisha Tyler