Where else but on television could a Jewish boy from Baltimore grow up to be Saint Nicholas? Is this a great country, or what?
That happens Monday night on "In the Nick of Time," another offering of all-purpose seasonal messages from NBC. It will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 p.m.
After an odd opening, in which you learn you're watching "Disney Night at the Movies," forget about poor old NBC showing how the power has changed between the networks and the studios in Hollywood some nice animation gets us situated in the North Pole headquarters of Mr. Claus himself.
There, he and a nerdy elf are exuberant over the success of a new computer system that's matching children's letters with toys in inventory.
But a blast from the past emerges from the keeper of the ancient texts, who informs this Santa that his 300 years on the toy throne are up. He has to find a replacement by Christmas Eve or the whole gig is going to fall apart.
So, our current Santa Claus, played with a nice, straightforward enthusiasm by the still hard-working Lloyd Bridges, heads down to the temperate climes of New York city in search of the new St. Nick.
Meanwhile, we get a brief introduction to the cynical, down-in-the-dumps Ben Talbot, a writer for the fictitious New York Sun which, in a burst of verisimilitude, is a newspaper facing the possibility of layoffs.
Michael Tucker plays Talbot, a talented writer who left his inspiration in the microwave he uses to heat up his coffee every morning. Lonely and alone, Ben has retreated behind a hard shell.
This is the last person you would think appropriate for the new Santa Claus. So, of course, he is the one who's going to end up with the job. Thus, right off the bat, you know your destination it's getting there that's supposed to be so much fun.
Well, fun might be too strong a word, but it is a painless, harmless and occasionally amusing trip that delivers a nice panoply of socially uplifting messages.
The most affecting moments might be those in which the real Santa Claus makes magic happen merely by the force of his open and generous personality. He takes over ringing a bell at a nearly empty charity pot and suddenly the dollar bills are overflowing. A few words from Santa turns a mean gang into a bunch of meek kids. A surly bartender becomes a kind friend. An angry policeman becomes an understanding ally. All of this in New York, mind you.
The most affecting moments might be those in which the real Santa Claus makes magic happen merely by the force of his open and generous personality. He takes over ringing a bell at a nearly empty charity pot and suddenly the dollar bills are overflowing. A few words from Santa turns a mean gang into a bunch of meek kids. A surly bartender becomes a kind friend. An angry policeman becomes an understanding ally. All of this in New York, mind you. During his meandering search, our Santa picks up a surrogate family made up of a variety of '90s types. There's the homeless Jamaican who's thriving on the streets, played by Cleavon Little. There's the hard-working, divorced single parent, gourmet cook cab driver, played by A Martinez, and his little girl. There's the driven career woman Ben's editor at the newspaper who's left her personal life on hold, played by Alison La Placa. And, of course, Ben, our cynical downbeat himself.
The story comes complete with an all-purpose villain and an innocent victim as unfeeling bureaucrats team with insensitive elected officials and selfish developers to try to tear apart a building currently being used as a neighborhood recreation center, all in the name of greed and profit, of course.
"In the Nick of Time" fudges the ecumenical bit. There are brief references to Santa's origins as a Christian saint, and you hear Santa singing Christmas carols of a religious nature, but, as in most movies of this genre, it's clear that all are welcome aboard this reindeer-drawn sleigh, never more so than when Tucker's Ben Talbot takes the reins.
This movie is no masterpiece, but buoyed by a superb cast, it's a decent bit of family fun, perfect for the 7- to 10-year-old set, but entertaining enough for Mom and Dad, too. Too bad it's on too late for most members of its target audience.