'Elf': not just stocking filler

Story of a man raised by Santa is a perfect vehicle for Will Ferrell

Everyone talks about the Oscar race. But there's another Hollywood race that also happens around this time - the contest to release the first Christmas movie.

This seems to occur earlier each year, and for 2003 the winners have already crossed the finish line - a tie between "Elf" and "Love Actually" (see review.) Why are studios so eager for Christmastime to begin? Sometimes it's because a movie is a genuine treat, and an early release gives viewers time to savor it before other late-year pictures start demanding attention. At other times it's a cynical effort to pawn off a second-rate picture before there's any Christmas-themed competition to make it look bad.

"Elf" belongs in the first category. It's a terrific movie, smart and funny enough to hold up at any time of year.

Will Ferrell plays Buddy, who's been raised at the North Pole. Although he thinks he's an elf, he's really a human who was taken in by Santa when his mother died and his father (James Caan) wanted nothing to do with him.

Buddy's belated discovery that he's an adopted human helps him clear up many mysteries. So this is why he's larger than all his friends! It also makes him curious about his origins. So he travels to Manhattan, where his father is a Scrooge-like executive.

Dad still wants no contact with his offspring. But it was easier to shake off a baby than an adult elf-man, so Buddy moves in with him. Then our hero falls in love - with a department-store worker (Zooey Deschanel) who finds him as likable as he is weird.

Three things make "Elf" as zesty as a perfect Christmas toy. One is Mr. Ferrell's on-the-button blend of silliness, seriousness, and ... well, elfishness.

Another is the bang-up supporting cast.

The third is David Berenbaum's sugarplum of a screenplay, aimed at all ages but never condescending to either kids or adults. Jon Favreau has directed it with split-second comic timing.

So hop in your one-horse open sleigh, glide to the nearest theater, and feel free to open "Elf" long before Christmas.

Rated PG; contains mild vulgarity.

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