LOS ANGELES -- Even Santa makes concessions for the kids of Hogwarts and the little folk of Middle-earth.
No studio wants to clash with holiday titans ''Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'' and ''The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.'' So Christmas comes early to theaters as Tim Allen's ''The Santa Clause 2'' debuted a day after Halloween, marking an unusually speedy start to Holly-wood's holiday season.
The 1994 original, in which Allen played a divorced dad who inherits the Kris Kringle gig after accidentally snuffing Santa, opened two weeks before Thanksgiving.
That time slot this year is occupied by the second adventure of Harry and friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Their first adventure, ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' was last year's top-grossing movie.
The first ''Lord of the Rings'' film ran a close second in 2001's box-office chart, so with part two coming just before Christmas, Disney chose to deliver ''Santa Clause 2'' early rather than risk being buried by the Hogwarts express and the hobbit stampede.
''I believe now after the heat we've been getting on our movie that we could probably compete with 'Harry Potter,''' Allen said. ''But you have to stay away from big movies like 'Harry Potter' or 'Lord of the Rings.' You just have to.''
Director Chris Columbus and all major cast members return for the second ''Harry Potter,'' including Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, and Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as chums Hermione and Ron.
Grint said the new movie ''has a lot more action. I prefer it to the first one. It's darker, and it's quite funny, as well.''
Adapted from the second of J.K. Rowling's ''Harry Potter'' best-sellers, the movie chronicles Harry's second year at Hogwarts as he deals with the celebrity of his first-year heroics and a new danger lurking at the school.
Radcliffe said he gets to reveal a more ominous side to Harry.
''I think everybody has a dark side,'' Radcliffe said. ''So I think it was great to be able to show Harry's dark side. It was great to be able to do, to show that's he not flawless, he's not the perfect person.''
Speaking of dark sides, director Peter Jackson's middle chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien's ''The Lord of the Rings'' picks up where the first left off, with the fellowship now fractured, its members striking off on separate journeys in their quest to destroy a ring of absolute evil.
While Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) lead a confrontation against evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) carry the ring to the foul lands of Mordor, the hangout of ultimate bad guy Sauron.
''Film one is a very linear story of this fellowship of nine characters finding their way through this land. Films two and three, the aperture opens wider, and you see a broader picture of Middle-earth,'' said Mark Ordesky, an executive producer of the trilogy, whose final installment comes next year.
''As Frodo and Sam creep their way along, they periodically pass by huge columns of evil-looking creatures that are being drawn to Sauron. He's like a lighthouse calling all evil to him. And then you've got Aragorn, the lost king of Gondor. He sees that no one's really working together, and he's nation building, and all of this is essentially a prelude to film three.''
The season's other sequels include:
''Die Another Day,'' pairing Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry in the 20th James Bond adventure; ''Star Trek: Nemesis,'' the franchise's 10th big-screen tale, pitting Enterprise Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) against a very personal enemy on a peace mission to the Romulans; ''Analyze That,'' reuniting Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal and director Harold Ramis in a second mob caper as De Niro tries going straight with help from his shrink; and ''The Friday After Next,'' the third installment in Ice Cube and Mike Epps' 'hood comedies, with the guys taking jobs as mall guards after their Christmas presents are boosted.
The crowded holiday period also brings:
Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson in ''I Spy,'' an update of the 1960s TV show; Disney's animated ''Treasure Planet,'' transplanting the pirate tale ''Treasure Island'' to outer space; Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's cat-and-mouse crime tale ''Catch Me If You Can''; the cartoon comedy ''Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights,'' with Sandler providing the three lead voices; and Eminem as an aspiring rapper on Detroit's mean streets in director Curtis Hanson's ''8 Mile.''
There's also ''Maid in Manhattan,'' starring Jennifer Lopez as a hotel chambermaid romanced by a political heir (Ralph Fiennes); George Clooney in ''Solaris,'' director Steven Soderbergh's sci-fi drama about ghostly manifestations on a space station; and Clooney's directing debut, ''Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,'' with Sam Rockwell in the make-believe CIA memoirs of game-show host Chuck Barris.
Other major releases include Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere in ''Chicago,'' adapted from the stage musical; a live-action ''Pinocchio'' starring and directed by Roberto Benigni; ''The Wild Thornberrys Movie,'' a big-screen version of the TV cartoon; Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as a hunted crook hiding behind a new identity in Brian De Palma's ''Femme Fatale''; the romance ''Two Weeks Notice,'' with Sandra Bullock as a corporate counsel trying to leave her needy boss (Hugh Grant) behind; and ''Max,'' starring John Cusack as an art dealer in 1918 Munich who befriends aspiring painter Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).
As always, the end-of-year films offer many Academy Awards hopefuls, including performances by such past Oscar winners as Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington and Michael Caine.
Washington, who won the best-actor Oscar for last year's ''Training Day,'' makes his directing debut and co-stars in ''Antwone Fisher,'' based on the true story of a tormented sailor (Derek Luke) aided by a Navy psychiatrist.
Caine plays a journalist in 1950s Vietnam in ''The Quiet American,'' adapted from Graham Greene's novel about murder and a love triangle. Brendan Fraser co-stars.
Nicholson stars in the darkly comic ''About Schmidt'' as a widower recently retired from a dull insurance job, whose self-examination during a road trip in a motorhome leads him to question the value of his life.
Streep has two films potentially in the Oscar race. In ''The Hours,'' based on the Pulitzer-winning novel that weaves together stories of three women in different times, Streep plays a contemporary book editor opposite Julianne Moore as a '50s mom and Nicole Kidman as author Virginia Woolf.
In ''Adaptation,'' Streep plays a fancifully fictionalized version of Susan Orlean, author of the book ''The Orchid Thief.'' The movie reteams ''Being John Malkovich'' writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, and stars Nicolas Cage in a bizarre screen personification of Kaufman as he unsuccessfully tries to adapt ''The Orchid Thief'' into a script.
Streep was surprised that such an odd and complex tale, in which Cage also plays Kaufman's make-believe twin brother, got made in a studio climate that leans toward shallow storytelling.
''It's so layered, and it asks and evokes a lot as you watch it,'' Streep said. ''At one point people were saying, is it too inside the process of writing or filmmaking? But to me, it's just using that landscape as a metaphor for every kind of yearning that human beings have. It's a metaphor for life, and how to be a responsible human being. What it's like to be alive right now. What it's like to adapt to circumstances.''
Other films positioned for awards consideration include Martin Scorsese's ''Gangs of New York,'' a 19th century vengeance tale starring DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz; ''The 25th Hour'' from director Spike Lee, starring Edward Norton as a prison-bound drug dealer on his last day of freedom; Kevin Kline as a devoted prep-school teacher who has a jarring reunion with old students in ''The Emperor's Club''; and ''Evelyn,'' with Bond star Brosnan as a Dublin dad fighting church and state for custody of his three children in 1950s Ireland.
Moore, Streep's co-star in ''The Hours,'' also has a second awards prospect in ''Far From Heaven,'' which reunites her with ''Safe'' director Todd Haynes. Set in the '50s, the film stars Moore as a woman whose picture-perfect life unravels amid homophobia and racism when her husband (Dennis Quaid) takes a male lover and she forms an attachment to her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).
''It's also meant to be a movie not just about sexuality and racism but about gender politics,'' Moore said. ''At the end of the day, the men in the movie, they're the ones that leave. They're the ones afforded an opportunity to kind of step away and make a new life. The woman's not. Todd's really made a very political movie about gender.''
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