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That the Christmas spirit is no longer what it once was is the discontent at the heart of Disney+’s The Santa Clauses, which sees Tim Allen’s Santa pondering retirement after nearly three decades on the job.
Really, though, was it ever? This is a franchise that began (in the 1994 film The Santa Clause) with a bitterly divorced salesman killing Santa the night before Christmas. Its spun-sugar holiday magic has always been a little askew — and with the latest addition from creator Jack Burditt, it’s taken on a distinctly sour tinge.
The Santa Clauses
Cast: Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell, Kal Penn, Elizabeth Allen-Dick, Austin Kane, Rupali Redd, Devin Bright, Matilda Lawler
Executive producers: Jack Burditt, Tim Allen, Kevin Hench, Richard Baker, Rick Messina, Jason Winer, Jon Radler
Here is a Santa who gripes that “Saying ‘Merry Christmas to all’ has suddenly become problematic,” and huffs at the idea that deeming a kid too naughty for presents is “brat-shaming.” He’s taken aback to realize that the adorable moppet who left him soy milk 20-some years ago (as we’re reminded of in one of the miniseries’ occasional inclusions of grainy clips from the 1994 film) has grown into an aimless 30something (Casey Wilson) who’s forgotten all about him.
Santa’s elves (chief among them Station Eleven‘s Matilda Lawler, well cast as his brusque lieutenant) have started to float the idea that it might be time for him to move on. Santa’s own family would tend to agree. Mrs. Claus (Elizabeth Mitchell) feels increasingly marginalized in a role so thankless she doesn’t have so much as a first name. (Apparently “Carol,” her name in The Santa Clause 2, doesn’t count because it was her “before name.” No, I don’t really get it either.) His kids, teenage Cal (Austin Kane) and tween-age Sandra (Elizabeth Allen-Dick, Tim Allen’s real-life daughter), are spending more and more time in VR goggles that allow them to simulate the thrillingly mundane experience of mowing lawns in Kansas.
All that’s left to do before Santa can leave is to find a successor. While he’s yet to find one by the end of the second chapter (the last sent to critics, of a six-part season), it should be obvious to all but the least experienced viewers that it’s destined to be Simon (Kal Penn) — a vaguely Bezosian type whose vaguely Amazonesque ecommerce business is in desperate need of whatever North Pole enchantment allows Santa to deliver toys to homes around the world faster than any cutting-edge drone.
There’s some poignancy in the idea that “Santa” could become just another one of those overly demanding professions that lead holiday-movie dads everywhere to neglect their families until some heartwarming third-act epiphany — particularly when it’s mirrored by Simon’s arc as a man for whom the job represents an opportunity to spend less time on Christmas Eve work calls and more time decking the halls with his extremely cute daughter (Ruplai Rudd). Penn projects an innate cuddliness that makes him easier to warm to than Allen’s crank of a Santa arguably ever was.
Unfortunately, such gleams of genuine emotion or charm tend to get buried under shoddy workmanship. For every half-decent joke (“I don’t like wearing anything Ozzy Osbourne wore better,” Mrs. Claus quips of her velvet capes), there’s a nonsensical groaner about “ASS — Acute Squawk Syndrome.” The soundtrack consists of tunes selected for their ability to sound sort of like the Ghostbusters or Indiana Jones themes, but not so much that they’ll cost real money.
The undemanding plot and shiny visuals might be enough to quiet a room full of kids for a half-hour at a time, and possibly even elicit a twinge of nostalgia or two in their Millennial parents. But if The Santa Clause‘s central worry is that there’s just not enough holiday magic in the world anymore, this halfhearted series seems unlikely to be the gift that’s going to bring it back.
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