At the end of The Santa Clause (the 1994 movie which introduced the notion that an ordinary bloke could suddenly put on 75 pounds, grow a long white beard and become the bona-fide Santa Claus), Santa (Tim Allen) rode off in his reindeer sleigh to continue doing his holiday thing, ad infinitum, perfectly content to be a single man (divorced, actually), and singularly devoted to his new calling.

And so Santa remained until this minute, when Bernard (David Krumholtz), the North Pole's Head Elf, along with his Number 2, Curtis (Spencer Breslin), inform the Big Guy of a newly discovered clause in his contract--'the Mrs. Clause.' It seems Santa is only allowed eight years of single bliss, which means he must tie the knot by midnight on this Christmas Eve, or he can no longer be Santa. But that's not the only bad news: For the first time ever, Santa's year-end 'naughty' list includes the name of his own left-behind son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd).

Obviously, it behooves Santa to slip out of the red suit and return to his former home in the suburbs to find out what's up with Charlie. At the same time, however, he has to find--and win--a bride. But can Santa leave the North Pole at the height of its busiest season? Who will supervise the production of all those Christmas toys? Curtis, the canniest of elves, has an answer: Put Santa in a special duplicating machine and make another Santa!

The plot plays a whole lot better than it summarizes. After all, the folks at Disney know a thing or two about movie magic, and in Santa Clause 2 they've made a sequel that, for all of its plot preposterousness, is not only better than its predecessor, it may rate as the most magical and most fun family fare of this or any recent holiday season. While the kids will be wowed by Santa's workshop (a vast Art Nouveau-inspired toy factory), as well as the terrific special effects (an out-of-control reindeer pup, a marauding army of life-size toy soldiers, etc.), adults will get a kick out of the clever in-jokes--and Tim Allen's way with a wiseacre remark.

Allen is again delightfully spot-on as the irrepressible Santa, and also--this time--as his elf-created doppelganger, a plastic-faced evil twin who, when left in charge of the North Pole, terrorizes the tiny toy-makers and announces that every kid, good or bad, will henceforth get only a lump of coal in his/her Christmas stocking. Meanwhile, back in the burbs, the real Santa, who's suddenly slimmed down and beardless, looking like his former persona Scott Calvin again (the better to bait a mate), learns that his son's shenanigans are partly due to his hatred for his school principal, (Elizabeth Mitchell), because she is so adamantly opposed to any display of Christmas spirit. Can she be won over? Silly question.

Santa's crash courtship of the lovely schoolmarm requires that he use up most of the magic powers he has left, as the clock counts down to the Christmas Eve deadline. These romantic sequences are both tender and touching, especially when Santa enlivens a boring faculty party by magically materializing a sack filled with gifts--which turn out to be the exact toys each of these jaded baby boomers had wished for, but never received, back when they still believed in Santa.

Mitchell's warm and spirited performance stands out among the new members of the Santa Clause crew. But others are worthy of note: Ten-year old Spencer Breslin handles his snappy dialogue with uncanny ease; Molly Shannon does a fabulously funny turn as a date-from-hell; and Art LaFleur, Aisha Tyler, Kevin Pollak, Jay Thomas and Michael Dorn are priceless as, respectively, the Tooth Fairy, Mother Nature, Cupid, Easter Bunny and Sandman. Then there's that new reindeer puppy, Chet, and a new starring role for Comet, who's far more wry and articulate (although terribly mumbly) than the last time out.

Joining Allen in repeating their original roles are Wendy Crewson, as Calvin's ex-wife, Laura; Judge Reinhold as her current husband, Neil, the sensitive 'sweater guy'; and Eric Lloyd, who's 16 now but was only eight when he first played Calvin and Laura's son, Charlie. Seeing him, and seeing the entire extended family together again (with the addition of Lillian Mumy as Charlie's three-year-old sister, Lucy), adds a feeling of verisimilitude to the continuing tale of Scott/Santa.

--Shirley Sealy