Warm Heart, Lame Wit

Some voices are hard on Hollywood these days. They believe the entertainment industry is pushing society in the wrong direction. Parents, in particular, dislike the permissiveness and moral relativism which many of its stories promote.

The problem is that few in Hollywood want to be cultural commissars. Most chose their careers for reasons of self-expression and for the opportunity to make big bucks, and, except for a handful of political activists, they don't pay much attention to the moral view they're propagating.

Ignorance is no excuse. The creators, financiers and marketers of movies, television and popular music must be made to take responsibility for what they produce. But at the same time as we press these demands, we also take for granted a high level of professionalism in their work. Few points are given for good intentions if the end result is boring or dull.

Jack Frost has its heart in the right place. It's a contemporary fairy tale about a father who seeks to do right by his son. When killed in a freak auto accident, he gets a temporary reprieve from the hereafter to come back and tie up loose ends.

The movie wants to be a positive influence on parents and children. The first half is an effective dramatization of a father's struggle to balance the competing demands of family and career. The second half is stylistically different. It is a cartoonlike, comic fantasy about a boy and a talking snowman, and, sad to report, it isn't funny.

MTV-trained director Troy Miller and screenwriters Mark Steven Johnson, Steve Bloom, Jonathan Roberts and Jeff Cesario try to present the traditional morality of strong families in a way that will seem palatable, even hip, to the baby-boomer generation of parents. Jack Frost (Michael Keaton) fronts a hard-rock blues band, singing and playing the harmonica. Although he's able to provide for his wife, Gabby (Kelly Preston), and 12-year-old son, Charlie (Joseph Cross), in a comfortable, suburban manner, the big-time success he deserves has always eluded him.

Jack is an ambitious workaholic, often on the road. His long hours keep him from participating in important events in his son's life. As depicted in the movie, Jack's dilemma isn't much different from that of any middle-class dad with a demanding office or professional job. The filmmakers show us a cleaned-up version of the rock ‘n' roll lifestyle — no drugs, groupies or any other hedonistic follies.

One evening, after having missed one of Charlie's ice hockey games, Jack tries to make amends by building a snowman with him. Then he gives his son an old harmonica which he claims has magic powers. “Whenever you play this, no matter where I am, I can hear you,” he promises. Charlie is moved even though he knows his father made up the story on the spot.

A year later, after Jack's death, Charlie builds a snowman like the one the two of them had constructed earlier. On top of it he places his dad's hat, scarf and gloves. The memories lift his sagging spirits.

Before falling asleep that night, Charlie plays a few notes on the har-monica. Much to his surprise, his father hears the call and miraculously returns home. But there's a hitch. His spirit is reincarnated in the snowman.

Charlie's first reaction is that it's all too weird, and he avoids the talking snowman like the plague. Eventually, they work things out, and he connects with his father in a deeper way than when he was alive.

Unfortunately, they communicate in a jokey, one-liner, sitcom manner. “I'm the wizard of blizzard,” Jack proclaims in what's meant to be a funny line. Later his snowman's head comes off and rolls a feet away. “Talk about separation anxiety,” he lamely cracks.

Jack Frost's leaden humor and its unsuccessful mix of styles make it a long 95 minutes. The filmmakers may pass the test as cultural commissars, but, as movie craftsmen, they fall short, and for most of us, that's not good enough.

Like it or not, Hollywood has become a permanent fixture of our cultural landscape. As such, we're right to insist that it be both solidly built and pollution-free.

John Prizer currently writes from Paris.