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Christmas Comes Early

"Elf" comes in time to give you holiday cheer while you're still savoring your leftover Halloween candy.

11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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YES, IT'S CHRISTMAS TIME ALREADY. Today "Elf" lands in theaters. It's the first Christmas movie of the season and, while I haven't done comprehensive research on this, I believe it's the earliest Christmas release in recent memory.

In case you're wondering why a movie about Santa Claus and the North Pole and Christmas magic is debuting seven days after Halloween, the answer is: Mike Myers.

In 2000, Universal's bastardized Jim Carrey version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" opened on November 17 to the tune of $55 million, en route to a mammoth gross of $260 million. That's big money. November 17 was, in case you're wondering, the last Friday before Thanksgiving.

If there's anything studios know, it's how to make sequels happen, even when none exist. Brian Grazer and the folks at Universal rushed to find another Seuss property and settled on "The Cat in the Hat," which is coming to a theater near you two weeks from now, on November 21, the last Friday before Thanksgiving.

"The Cat in the Hat"--which stars Mike Myers--isn't exactly a sequel, but it's a Seuss movie with a gigantic comedy star opening on the same seasonal weekend, so Universal executives are hoping it plays like one. It probably will, despite the fact that "The Cat in the Hat" has nothing to do with Christmas.

In an effort to get out of the way of this juggernaut, New Line has released the delightful "Elf" two weeks too soon. Let us hope it doesn't suffer.

"ELF" tells the story of Buddy, a baby who stows away in Santa's bag one Christmas Eve. He accompanies the big fella all the way back to the North Pole where, upon his discovery, he's adopted by Poppa Elf (Bob Newhart). He is raised in the elf ways and doesn't discover his human heritage until late in life (when he's played by Will Ferrell). He then sets off to New York City to track down his biological father.

Part "Big," part "Miracle on 34th Street," "Elf" isn't the broad, star-driven comedy it's being billed as. Ferrell (who is either the next Chevy Chase or the next Bill Murray) plays Buddy with his trademark look of wide-eyed confusion, and make no mistake, he gets his share of the laughs. The funniest bits, however, come from the excellent supporting cast. In particular, Peter Dinklage does an inspired walk-on as a megalomaniacal, bestselling children's author. (Anthony Lane is right: Dinklage, recently seen in "The Station Agent," has the screen charisma of a bona fide leading man. Let's hope we hear more from him.)

At its core, however, "Elf" really is a Christmas movie, not a Will Ferrell comedy. From the inventive and charming title sequence to the sweet, low-tech rendering of the North Pole, director Jon Favreau gives "Elf" a guilelessness that goes a long way. It goes so far that it even makes up for the movie's failings, the biggest of which is a Scrooge-like conversion which is both obvious and unearned.

ONLY TIME WILL TELL whether or not "Elf"'s heart is big enough to make it a modern classic and place it in the holiday canon with "A Christmas Story" and "Scrooged." But for it to have any chance of cultural longevity, it will need a big enough haul at the box office in the next two weeks to carry it over in theaters once Thanksgiving hits. New Line hasn't done it any favors by opening it this early. Or has it?

In a strange way, "Elf" may be helped by The Matrix: Revolutions. Early returns from Wednesday and Thursday show the third entry in "The Matrix" trilogy to be performing below expectations. Warner Brothers--the studio behind "The Matrix"--and New Line are owned by the same parent company, AOL-Time Warner. If "Revolutions" tanks--which is to say, makes only $60-$70 million this weekend--there will be room for "Elf" to establish a foothold in the marketplace.

Perhaps the scheduling gurus at New Line had this in mind all along.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

Correction appended 11/14/03: The article originally stated: "David Denby is right: Dinklage, recently seen in 'The Station Agent,' has the screen charisma of a bona fide leading man." It was Anthony Lane who is a fan of Dinklage.