"Santa Claus: The Movie" begins with Santa Claus: The Man (David Huddleston), a kindly woodcutter who whittles toys for the children of his Scandinavian neighborhood. Things look rough for the old boy one night when his reindeer stall in a snowstorm, but in the St. Nick of time, he's rescued by elves, who spirit him away to their castle. "Henceforth, you will be called Santa Claus," says the elves' ancient prophet.

"Santa! murmur murmur murmur," say the elves.

So the movie plods along by explaining how Santa's red suit was born ("Green's just not his color," suggests Santa Claus: The Wife), how the list of who's naughty and nice came to be, and so forth. The reindeer are able to fly, for example, after they're fed with whatever glitter director Jeannot Szwarc hasn't already splashed on the screen (and there can't be much left).

The story then meanders along, as Santa gets stressed out and names an assistant, Patch (Dudley Moore), who turns the North Pole into an assembly line. Apparently, someone forgot to leave "In Search of Excellence" under his tree, because soon enough the Pole is turning out defective toys. Santa gives Patch his pink slip, but it seems that pink's not his color, because he decides to ditch the Pole and look for a new job. Fully an hour into the movie, the plot kicks in: Patch ties in with an unscrupulous toy manufacturer (John Lithgow), and Santa Claus: The Consumer Group must come to the rescue.

The script (by David and Leslie Newman), in other words, is a kind of miracle of botched construction, although that's not the worst thing about it: Instead of trying to get inside the Christmas myth, the Newmans just lard the story with scraps of contemporary life and call it "updated." The $50 million that producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind reputedly invested in the movie was presumably spent on the fleets of planes that used to tow "Santa Claus" signs over Cannes, advertising the coming spectacuganza, because it certainly doesn't show in the production. The aerial photography that provides the backdrop for Santa's flying sleigh, for example, looks awfully like it's been recycled from the Salkinds' "Superman" series.

Moore has become a kind of toy himself, and one on nobody's Christmas list. Even the usually reliable Lithgow isn't any good -- the central notion in his characterization of a tycoon seems to be sucking elaborately on a large cigar. "The people don't want to wait a whole year -- they want a sequel!" he thunders. Oh no they don't.

Santa Claus: The Movie, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG.