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A hug for the holiday spirit

Only a real Scrooge could look into the optimistically vacant eyes of Will Ferrell and not burst out laughing.

At first glance, there doesn't appear to be anyone home. But that's just the blissful ignorance of the characters he plays, unaware that they reside on the lunatic fringe and silently expecting everyone to join them. It's easy when such an irresistibly innocent soul is offering the invitation.

Hold back any disagreement until after you see Elf, a vehicle for Ferrell's cockeyed cheerfulness that could have been merely a sketch on Saturday Night Live. We know what usually happens to those bits when they're fleshed out into feature films. But Elf is different, a concept milked for everything it's worth onscreen, not milked dry on TV before it gets there.

Elf is a comedy that embraces the holiday spirit rather than spoofs its commercialism. It has some decent laughs, big ones at times, yet Ferrell and director Jon Favreau are just setting up viewers for a lump-in-the-throat finale that modern Christmas movies either forget or remake with insincerity.

Ferrell plays Buddy, a human who as a baby stowed away in Santa's bag on Christmas Eve. Nobody at the North Pole knows where he lives, and Buddy is unofficially adopted by a veteran elf (Bob Newhart). Eventually Buddy outgrows his usefulness, too slow at filling up Etch A Sketch toys with magic sand and too tall for comfort. The old elf and Santa Claus (Ed Asner) reveal his origins, inspiring Buddy to travel to New York to locate his biological father (James Caan), who, to Buddy's dismay, is on the naughty list.

The first act of Favreau's movie is tinged with nostalgia. The North Pole and its inhabitants have that Rankin-Bass look from 1960s holiday classics such as Frosty the Snowman. Set designers have a field day with oversized and undersized props giving the illusion of Buddy dwarfing his colleagues and life-size toys dwarfing them. Each sight gag is carefully considered, then executed with casual flair. It's an inspired setting that's missed when the plot detours to New York.

That's when Farrell's goofy charisma takes over, making each of Buddy's well-intentioned mistakes a little bit of comedy heaven. Everyone thinks Buddy is crazy _ the elf suit and an impossibly sugary diet are good starts _ paving the way for fish-out-of-water gags that often click simply because Buddy believes. Farrell is so committed to playing this idiocy straight that even the occasionally lame writing gets funnier. It's hard to avoid feeling just like him.

No, the uneasy bonding between Buddy and his father doesn't work, mostly because Caan appears not to be as sold on this project as Ferrell. Buddy's crush on a co-worker at Gimbel's (Zooey Deschanel) remains credibly chaste and therefore doesn't inspire romantic swoons. But Ferrell is in every scene, lifting most of them higher than they deserve to be, including a climactic lesson in Santa Claus faith that might bring a tear to your eye.

Elf shouldn't be this doggone sweet, judging by Favreau's R-rated wise-guy films, Swingers and Made. That edge helps him skip the sentiment, while an obviously warm heart stops him short of vicious satire, settling somewhere in the middle, where the most appealing Christmas yarns reside, and where Ferrell can run rings around convention and still stir the child in all of us.

Elf

Grade: B

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen

Screenplay: David Berenbaum

Rating: PG; mild profanity and crude humor

Running time: 95 min.

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