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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And judging by what's in theaters this holiday movie season, his name is George Clooney.
Disney's release of the animated "A Christmas Carol" on Friday begins eight weeks of holiday moviegoing that brings a bag full of movies to theaters, from family friendly fare to Oscar hopefuls and this year, a lot of Clooney thrown in.
Absent from the silver screen are many other A-list stars audiences have come to expect over the holidays -- Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Adam Sandler and Reese Witherspoon.
"Instead you have teen vampires," said Entertainment Weekly movie writer Dave Karger, referring to romance "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."
"That's the way things are going these days -- the franchise films have become the star more than the A-list actor," he said.
But that's not yet the case with Clooney. He stars in comedy "The Men Who Stare at Goats," voices the title role in animated family film "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and could earn an Oscar nomination as a corporate hatchet man in director Jason Reitman's "Up In the Air."
The other big name to watch is Meryl Streep. She also voices a role in "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and stars alongside Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin in divorce comedy "It's Complicated."
If there's any doubt the holidays -- the second-biggest movie season of the year after the summer -- are officially here, one need look no further than "A Christmas Carol," which comes with a gift -- 3D. Carrey takes on four roles in the animated movie -- Scrooge, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Christmas Yet to Come -- and nothing screams Christmas more than a retelling of this classic Dickens tale.
"I really think this is just a beautiful holiday film," he told reporters recently. "You get scares, catharsis and redemption. You get everything."
And "everything" is what the studios have in store for fans as they try to lure just about everyone to theaters.
Late November brings an onslaught of family films including the animated alien adventure comedy "Planet 51" and true story sports drama "The Blind Side," starring Sandra Bullock. She plays a woman whose family takes in a homeless African American teenager and helps him become a successful football player.
Teenagers and tweens will be flocking to vampire romance "New Moon," the highly anticipated sequel to last-year's mega-hit "Twilight."
On November 25, John Travolta and Robin Williams play for laughs in "Old Dogs," while Disney adds a new princess to its roster with animated "The Princess and the Frog."
"Going the family friendly route during the holiday season is the surest way to big bucks," said Karger. "Families are together and looking for something to do that's fun for all the different generations."
There are decidedly darker themes at work when it comes to the films vying for February's nominations for Oscars -- the world's top film honors -- and most all are based on books.
"Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," out on Friday, tells of an overweight, illiterate teen impregnated for the second time by her father. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and comic actress Mo'Nique deliver standout performances.
In the weeks that follow are "The Road," about a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic world, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-Prize winning book.
Fashion designer Tom Ford makes his directorial debut with "A Single Man," about a gay man (Colin Firth) who struggles to continue living after the death of his partner. Along with "Precious," "Single Man" has been picked as early favorites in the race for Oscars, especially Firth.
"I think Colin's spectacular in the film. He was made for this character," Ford told Reuters.
Oscar winner Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings" films) is back with a big screen adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel "The Lovely Bones," starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon. The film is about a murdered young girl who watches over her family - and her killer - from heaven.
Even "Up in the Air" with Clooney, is not exactly a light romantic comedy. Based on Walter Kim's novel, it grows more serious as the plot continues and Clooney's character questions his bachelorhood. "Juno" director Jason Reitman made the film and co-wrote the screenplay.
Despite its adult theme, "Air" may get some box office traction with teen audiences because "New Moon" actress Anna Kendrick stars alongside Clooney. And if it can combine ticket sales with critical acclaim, Oscar voters cannot ignore it.
Another film with the potential to earn strong box office and, thus, Academy Award voters are "Titanic" director James Cameron's long-awaited space adventure "Avatar."
Critics' darling Clint Eastwood is back with "Invictus," a true story starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of South Africa's rugby team.
The Oscar wild card for now belongs to "Chicago" director Rob Marshall's musical "Nine," featuring Daniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, and Kate Hudson.
"Chicago" proved to be both a commercial and critical success. Nominated for 13 Oscars, it won six including the coveted Best Picture prize. Can he repeat himself this year?
"I don't know anyone who's seen it," says Karger. "That's the one film that can either be an absolute knockout or a disappointment."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte