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MOVIE REVIEW

This 'Clause' has cheer, but lacks laughs

The bad news, for those looking forward to "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" with anything like enthusiasm, is this: Bernard the Elf is history.

Just about everyone else is back for this third go-round in the Dad- turned-into-Santa-Claus family comedy series. Tim Allen is still swaddled in padding and cotton whiskers as the mythic holiday figure formerly known as Scott Calvin, and he's still not particularly funny. Elizabeth Mitchell ("Lost") is still his wife , Carol, now nine months pregnant on the brink of Christmas Eve. Spencer Breslin returns as Curtis the uptight elf, as do all those actors playing Mother Nature (Aisha Tyler), Father Time (Peter Boyle), and Cupid (Kevin Pollak).

But no lovable, hangdog Bernard; presumably actor David Krumholtz is happier playing a crime-busting mathematician on TV's "Numb3rs." In his place, the film brings on Martin Short as a power-hungry Jack Frost who schemes to wrest the Santa suit away from the big guy.

For additional insurance -- or in the interests of sheer surrealism -- "Santa Claus 3" also drafts Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin as Carol's disbelieving parents, brought to the North Pole workshop to cheer up their daughter in her third trimester while laboring under the delusion that she and her husband live in Canada.

Trust me: The only thing harder to believe than Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin as a married couple is Alan Arkin being very interested in Christmas. Just the way he glumly surveys Santa's digs and says "A kitchen this size, I can't find a sandwich?" sounds more High Brooklyn than High Episcopal. But I guess "The Dreidl Clause" was out of the question.

"Santa Clause 3" is shallow, formulaic Yuletide good cheer that's nevertheless acceptable for small children and grown-ups who like to think like them. It's characterized by farting animatronic reindeer, sincere messages about devoting time to one's family, magic hugs, and Short doing what he can to kick a hole in all the styrofoam niceness while wearing a Mr. Freeze fright wig.

At one point, Jack Frost gains control of Santa's workshop and turns it into a Las Vegas-style theme park -- supposedly a hideous inversion of Christmas values. So blandly commercialized is the movie's vision of the holiday that you can hardly tell the difference.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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