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REVIEW: Ferrell is joy to watch in 'Elf'

Buddy the Elf, a thirtysomething man who's enjoyed a blissfully naive existence cobbling toys at the North Pole, craves any food loaded with sugar.

He covers a plate of pasta with jelly beans, Pop Tart pieces and maple syrup, then gleefully crams fistfuls of the glucose-infused glop into his mouth. And that's just for breakfast.

"Elf" director Jon Favreau goes easier on the sweet stuff, however. The "Swingers" director has made a Christmas movie that's almost edgy. And as Buddy, Will Ferrell brings a boundless boyish enthusiasm to the role that's infectious.

It's a joy to watch Ferrell in action -- and he's constantly in action, thanks to his perpetual sugar rush -- because he seems to have genuine affection for this character. He never plays down to Buddy, never treats him like he's slow or goofy. He plays him like an innocent kid stuck inside a 6-foot-3 man's body, and he makes you want to wrap your arms around him and protect him from the Scrooges outside the walls of Santa's workshop.

As a "Saturday Night Live" alum, he clearly has no qualms about making a fool of himself for the big laugh.

"Elf" begins with a flashback, narrated by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), which explains how Buddy sneaked into Santa's toy sack as an orphaned infant on Christmas Eve. Upon returning to the North Pole, Santa (a wonderfully unjolly Ed Asner) decides the boy should stay, and the elves raise him as one of their own.

After a lifetime of crouching through tiny elfin doorways and squatting on tiny elfin chairs, Buddy is shocked to learn he's not an elf -- he's a grown man with a father in New York City who doesn't know he exists. So he sets out to find Walter (James Caan), even though the callous children's book publisher is on the naughty list.

David Berenbaum's script really picks up, and the best sight gags and fish-out-of-water jokes come, after Buddy hits Manhattan (which he reaches by creeping carefully through the Lincoln Tunnel). He bounces through the city in his uniform -- festive green jacket, yellow tights, pointy green hat -- spinning through revolving doors and waving at hardened New Yorkers.

"I just like to smile," he responds when asked why he always appears so happy. "Smiling's my favorite."

Walter thinks Buddy's a nut when he shows up in full yuletide splendor at his Empire State Building publishing office, but has to accept him when a blood test proves this person is indeed his son. Walter's wife and son (Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Tay, among the solid supporting cast) eventually warm to him, too.

Speaking of the supporting cast, many of the choices are totally genius. Besides Newhart and Asner, Zooey Deschanel charms as the fair-haired object of Buddy's affections, and Andy Richter and Kyle Gass have some funny scenes as Walter's useless underlings.

But as an egomaniacal children's book author -- a dwarf whom Buddy mistakes for an elf -- Peter Dinklage seizes the scene he's in and doesn't let go. It would have been a disarming performance anyway, but it's especially forceful compared to the quiet dignity he brought this year to his starring role in "The Station Agent."

Sure, "Elf" feels a little too feel-good at the end, but what do you expect? It's a Christmas movie! Anything else would be the cinematic equivalent of finding coal in your stocking.

"Elf," a New Line Cinema release, is rated PG for some mild rude humor and language. Running time: 90 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.

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