That claim might seem premature to some readers - but probably not to anyone who got dragged to Old School (the scary-looking fratboy comedy) only to find himself giggling uncontrollably whenever Ferrell was on screen. The movie itself was so-so, but Ferrell was truly memorable, as he was as a goofily sinister fashion designer in Ben Stiller's underrated romp Zoolander. At this point, Ferrell has earned enough credit in the Bank of Comedy to get skeptical viewers into a Christmas movie just a week after Halloween.

And he delivers. Elf exploits Ferrell's most innocent childish side, one that he has elsewhere used to play just plain dumb. Here, Buddy is not stupid but guileless, a human raised by Santa's helpers who travels to New York City in search of a lost father who is (Buddy is shocked to learn) on Santa's Naughty list. Buddy sets out, in pointy hat and yellow leotards, to walk from the North Pole to the Big Apple, through (as he later tells anyone who will listen, and many who won't) the Candy Cane Forest and alongside the swirling, twirling Gumdrop Sea. His leggings are still spotless when he emerges from the Lincoln Tunnel, and Ferrell proceeds with a few perfect gags to become one of Manhattan's most amusing wide-eyed newcomers: He feasts on discarded chewing gum, races through revolving doors, and is delighted to accept the advertising flyers that more savvy tourists reject as trash. Buddy is lovable and laughable at once, though he is a little too much for his predictably Scrooge-ish dad (played with less malice than expected by James Caan.)

Dir. Jon Favreau; writ. David Berenbaum; feat. Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, Daniel Tay, Mary Steenburgen (PG)

With Elf and Jack Black's exultant School of Rock, this has become the season for edgy comedians to go kid-friendly without selling out; there's not a single thing in this fairy tale that is inappropriate for a young child (if a loud, boisterous belch offends you, you should have given up the multiplex long ago), but Ferrell never comes close to blanding- or dumbing-down his charms the way Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams have in most of their "family" films.

Elf starts to get fairly generic once Buddy is settled in the city; if it hasn't won adults over by 45 minutes in, it isn't likely to. But as it goes through the motions of a standard Christmas-spirit-boosting fable, with unlikely changes of heart and spontaneous sing-alongs, it remains true to the pure heart at its center. It doesn't have the sustained originality that makes A Christmas Story welcome even after a zillion airings on cable, but it's a likable story grounded by a lovable performance. •


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