LOS ANGELES — Only Hollywood could assemble a holiday guest list that ranges from the Muppets, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Puss in Boots and dancing penguins to J. Edgar Hoover, Margaret Thatcher, Marilyn Monroe and a steed in the trenches of World War I.
The latter are among a batch of potential Academy Awards contenders from past winners and nominees: Leonardo DiCaprio as the FBI boss in director Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar"; Meryl Streep as former British Prime Minister Thatcher in "The Iron Lady"; Michelle Williams as Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn"; and Steven Spielberg directing "War Horse," the Tony Award-winning play that arrives in theaters just days after the U.S. debut of Spielberg's action tale "The Adventures of Tintin."
The rush of holiday films starts early with the pre-Halloween release of "Puss in Boots," an animated prequel about an early caper of the daring cat that became one of the ogre's sidekicks in the "Shrek" movies.
Antonio Banderas, who returns to provide the voice of Puss, said much of the character's charm arises as the tiny cat struts and boasts with a bravado that's out of whack with his size.
"We just provided him with a voice that doesn't go, actually, with the body," said Banderas, who is joined by voice co-stars Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris. "He thinks that he's bigger. He thinks that he's more arrogant. It's something that goes against the image, and that produces comedy."
Other top holiday titles include the next-to-last installment of "The Twilight Saga"; Robert Downey Jr.'s "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"; Hollywood's take on Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," with Daniel Craig; Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol"; Martin Scorsese's first 3-D film, "Hugo"; Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller's action romp "Tower Heist"; George Clooney's family comic drama "The Descendants"; Adam Sandler's dual-role comedy "Jack and Jill"; and Charlize Theron's romance "Young Adult."
Here are details on some of the highlights:
Joining "Puss in Boots" on the family front are three familiar casts of cuddly creatures and a new animated look at the CEO of the Christmas season.
"Happy Feet Two" brings the return of tap-dancing cartoon penguin Mumble (Elijah Wood), whose son is in a crisis over his own lack of dance moves. The voice cast includes Robin Williams, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and pop star Pink.
During an ocean cruise, the talking, singing rodents find themselves stranded on a deserted island in "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked." The live-action and voice cast features Jason Lee, Justin Long, Amy Poehler and Christina Applegate.
James McAvoy provides the voice of the title character in "Arthur Christmas," an animated adventure that explains how Santa Claus manages to deliver gifts all over the world in one night.
"The Muppets" return as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang team with two human pals (Jason Segel and Amy Adams) for a telethon to save their old theater from a greedy oilman (Chris Cooper).
The once omnipresent Muppets have been long absent from movies and TV, and Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay, said that has been incorporated into the story.
"We didn't try to skirt away from the fact that they've been dormant," Segel said. "We made that a major plot point. The Muppets have not been around for a while, and so we decided to create a story as to why and try to fix it, simple as that."
"My Week With Marilyn" chronicles the trials of a young assistant (Eddie Redmayne) as he ushers sex bomb Monroe (Williams) through the production of "The Prince and the Showgirl," co-starring Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh).
Streep could add to her Oscar record of 16 acting nominations as Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," a portrait of the conservative prime minister that co-stars Jim Broadbent.
Also on the London front is director Madonna's "W.E.," which blends the story of a modern woman (Abbie Cornish) in an unhappy marriage with the 1930s scandal over the abdication of King Edward so he could marry divorcee Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough).
"A Dangerous Method" follows the birth of psychoanalysis through the professional and personal clash of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and their relationships with a patient (Keira Knightley).
On "J. Edgar," DiCaprio teams with Eastwood for a portrait of Hoover, who ran the FBI and its predecessor for nearly 50 years and drew accusations of abuse of power in his declining years.
"He was somebody that just stayed in power too long," DiCaprio said. "Toward the end of his regime, he was out of touch and out of date with what was going on in this country."
ACTION AND ADVENTURE:
Director Spielberg teams with producer Peter Jackson for "The Adventures of Tintin," which opens overseas well ahead of its December release in the United States, where the youthful adventurer is virtually unknown despite his global renown from the storybooks of Belgian writer Herge.
The film sends eager reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) on a treasure hunt with seafaring pal Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis), the production created through a performance-capture shoot layered over with digital animation.
Downey as the great detective and sidekick Watson (Jude Law) meet criminal mastermind Moriarty (Jared Harris) in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." James Bond star Craig stars with Rooney Mara in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," an English-language remake of the Danish film based on the Swedish best-seller about a troubled computer genius aiding a journalist investigating a decades-old crime. "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" has Cruise's elite team going rogue after an attack on the Kremlin.
Murphy and Stiller star in "Tower Heist," an action comedy about a band of defrauded workers who plot a break-in against the billionaire (Alan Alda) who swindled them. "Immortals" casts Freida Pinto, Mickey Rourke and Henry Cavill in a battle among humans and the gods of ancient Greece.
Then there's "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1," the first of two movies based on Stephenie Meyer's final novel about teen Bella (Kristen Stewart) and her supernatural suitors (Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner).
Given how well fans already know what's coming from Meyer's novel, director Bill Condon is not too concerned about spoiler alerts over the epic events of "Part 1."
"Bella gets married, she has a honeymoon, she has sex for the first time, she gets pregnant, she gives birth, she dies, she becomes a vampire," Condon said. "All in one movie."
"Breaking Dawn: Part 2" is due out in November 2012.
The season is heavy on families coping with loss and other domestic troubles. Clooney stars as a neglectful husband and father forced to take charge of his spirited daughters after an accident puts his wife in a coma in "The Descendants," which centers on a large extended family that is heir to a priceless piece of unspoiled Hawaiian land.
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" features Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock in the story of a boy searching New York City for the lock that fits a key left behind by his father, who was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Martin Scorsese directs the 3-D adventure "Hugo," the story of an orphan boy living in the walls of a Paris train station who joins with an eccentric girl as he seeks answers about the father he recently lost. The live action feature is based on Brian Selznick's children's book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."
Roman Polanski's "Carnage" stars Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz in a drama about parents whose civility slips away as they meet to talk over a playground fight between their sons. It is based on Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play, "God of Carnage."
In "We Bought a Zoo," Matt Damon plays a dad trying to hold his family together by doing just what the title says — moving with his kids to a rundown zoo that they begin to rebuild. Sounds sappy, concedes Damon, who interrupts himself when he describes the movie to point out that it's directed by Oscar winner Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire," ''Almost Famous").
"It's one of those movies that sounds like it could be the worst Disney movie ever," Damon said. "My pitch for it normally is, 'So this guy buys a broken-down zoo and in the course of rebuilding the zoo — look, Cameron Crowe directed it.' ... So you go, OK, this could work."
Angelina Jolie makes her directing debut with "In the Land of Blood and Honey," a romance set against the turmoil of the war in Bosnia during the 1990s.
Set amid the Cold War in 1973, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" stars Gary Oldman as author John le Carre's unassuming spymaster George Smiley, brought out of retirement to finger a Russian mole in British intelligence circles.
Ralph Fiennes gives Shakespeare an update, directing and starring in "Coriolanus," with the action moved to modern times as an exiled Roman general enlists a former rival (Gerard Butler) and lays siege to his old city.
Based on the book that inspired the Broadway play, Spielberg's "War Horse" chronicles the horrors of World War I through the eyes of an English farm horse that is sold to the army and later captured and pressed into service by the Germans.
Spielberg saw the play in London, a production using elaborate life-sized puppets as horses. Dazzling as the puppets were, Spielberg said it's the core of the horse's journey that really resonates.
"I walked out of that marvelous experience with a deep desire to make the movie," Spielberg said. "The reason it endures with audiences and it really touches the heart is because of the story, and it was a story I wanted to turn into a motion picture. We have real horses. We don't use puppets. I have to hasten to point that out."
ROMANCE AND LAUGHTER:
Charlize Theron is a wannabe home wrecker in "Young Adult," playing a writer who returns to her hometown and sets about reclaiming her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) from his wife.
Jonah Hill proves a nightmare of a baby sitter as he takes his neighbor's kids along for a wild night on the town in "The Sitter."
The holidays are the backdrop for some of the season's comedies: "Jack and Jill" stars Sandler as both a solid family guy and his needy twin sister, who comes to visit for Thanksgiving; "New Year's Eve" features an ensemble including Halle Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert De Niro, Ashton Kutcher and Michelle Pfeiffer as New Yorkers ringing in another year; "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" reunites the party-boy pals (John Cho and Kal Penn) for a stoner journey through New York City.
One of the season's most-unusual releases is a throwback to old, old Hollywood. "The Artist" follows the downfall of a movie star (Jean Dujardin) and the rise of a starlet (Berenice Bejo) as silent film gives way to sound pictures — and it's told as a black-and-white silent film.
The movie has charmed audiences at film festivals, winning Dujardin the best-actor prize at Cannes. But can a quaint throwback to the silent era click with today's paying crowds?
"The most difficult thing to do is to actually manage to drag these people into the room," Dujardin said. "But once they're in the room, there's no problem. I'm kind of convinced that they will stay."
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