Better than The Santa Clause 2 (2004), this second sequel to the original 1994 comedy about an average Joe who becomes St. Nick drags a bit but sustains itself thanks to Martin Short's unwaveringly manipulative sharpie, the spirit-o'-winter, Jack Frost. Tim Allen, in his third go-round as the guy in the big red suit, inhabits the role comfortably, and veterans Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret, as his in-laws, and Peter Boyle, as Father Time, all are gifts no matter what the season. Yet the major plot mechanisms require Santa himself, among others, to be so cluelessly obtuse that it gets to be a little like those children's-theatre productions where the kids in the audience see the bad guy sneaking up behind the oblivious good guy and they all shout, "Turn around! Look out!"

I never thought I'd say this, but thank goodness for Martin Short. While he's certainly demonstrated loads of talent in the past, he can be exhaustingly in-your-face. But sitcom director Michael Lembeck uses him well and keeps Short's tone far away from wacky, his usual Short-cut. This Jack Frost is a cold-eyed office shark--charming, ingratiating and always swimming toward his goal. Like Halloween king Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, this new Jack wants to take over Santa's holiday. Unlike Jack Skellington, however, he doesn't care about trying to improve or give a new twist to the holiday, but just wants to take in the glory and rake in the dough.

He sets out on this quest after a reprimanding Council of Legendary Figures threatens to expel him for installing hundreds of cardboard cutouts of himself in malls, hawking "Frostmas." But big-hearted Santa is getting close to blowing his deadline this year, thanks in part to doting on the pregnant Mrs. Claus, a.k.a. his son's former principal, Carol Newman (Elizabeth Mitchell). He takes Jack to help out, putting him under Curtis, the head elf (the stiff Spencer Breslin, who in his defense has to play a character improbably written as so incompetent and bumbling you can't understand how he got the top slot.) When things suddenly start going haywire that always ran smoothly before, Santa--who as Scott Calvin had been a bit of a business shark himself--has no suspicions whatsoever that maybe, possibly, just perhaps an itty-bitty bit, Jack might have something to do with it.

That's far from the only plot predicament shoehorned in without regard to characterization or to the consistent internal logic that fantasy needs. The film begins developing a great bit where the elves mask the North Pole village as "Canada" to support Mrs. Claus's cover story to her parents that Calvin's a Canadian toymaker. But this conceit never plays out to its potential. Much better is the It's a Wonderful Life-meets-Click bit where Jack tricks Calvin into giving up Claus-hood, leading to Jack's frighteningly realistic marketing exploitation as he turns the North Pole into a Vegas vacation-site for kids.

Throughout, Short's skill and total commitment to his role make him no straw-dog villain, and his chemistry with Allen helps the movie's Santa feel like a real live person and not an imperturbable icon. That said, we can all do without reindeer fart jokes.