"Jack Frost" is about a man who dies, then comes back to life as a snowman to teach his young son that life must go on, which must be one of the most morbidly bizarre plot synopses to float through Hollywood all year.
So the fact that "Jack Frost" succeeds even momentarily comes as a huge surprise. Although the movie's maudlin theme and heartbreaking ending make it virtually un-recommendable to anyone other than 10- to 12-year-olds who need help grappling with mortality, "Jack Frost" isn't a total loss. In fact, its first half is one of the most refreshingly laid-back family comedies to hit screens in a long while.
Michael Keaton plays Jack Frost, a blues-rock musician who NTC lives with his wife, Gabby (Kelly Preston), and 11-year-old son Charlie (Joseph Cross) in a picturesque Colorado town. Right off the bat, "Jack Frost" has a more rootsy feel than the run-of-the-mill family heart-warmer; we meet Frost during a gig, when his band is rocking out and a record company executive (Dweezil Zappa in a cameo) holds his cell phone out for the benefit of his boss back at corporate. "Jack Frost" does a good job of depicting the life of a working musician, not as an endless bus ride of groupies, drugs and booze but of honest hard work.
Keaton, too, does a good job of playing Jack as the dad of every kid's dreams, a soulful hipster who happens to be a good hockey player to boot. In fact, between Keaton's understated performance, the easy rapport between him and Cross and a droll performance by Henry Rollins as a sadistic hockey coach (who tells his team that hockey "is about fair play, sportsmanship and all that crap"), "Jack Frost" is actually palatable until it takes its fatal turn.
The movie squanders the good will it's built up, first by killing Jack in a terrible car accident, then resurrecting him in the form of a snowman. With Keaton providing the voiceover to a cheesy-looking animatronic snowman, "Jack Frost" melts into a puddle of oddly misguided comedy and morose melodrama. (Parents should also be advised that the language, especially as relates to the human posterior, tends toward the objectionable. It's a post-"Simpsons" world, after all.)
Although there are a few sequences that will delight youngsters -- a snowball fight worthy of Gen. Patton and a spectacular chase scene on snowboards and a toboggan are loads of fun -- too many long, talky passages will render most kids restless within an hour. What's more, the movie's insistence on killing Jack twice (once as a sentient being, once as a snowman) makes "Jack Frost" not only unusual but downright cruel (at a recent screening, filmgoers under 10 were weeping inconsolably when the lights came up).
"Jack Frost" was made with so many thoughtful touches that it's impossible to believe its makers had anything but the best intentions. And those who appreciate such details as Jack's Clifton Chenier poster, a Lucinda Williams tune on the soundtrack and a cameo video appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan will enjoy the film's hip vibe. But "Jack Frost" can't possibly straddle its emotional shifts between morbidity and sheer nonsense.
Starring Michael Keaton, Kelly Preston, Joseph Cross
Directed by Troy Miller
Released by Warner Brothers
Rated PG (mild language)
Running time: 96 minutes
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 12/11/98