Well, the civilized world can stop holding its breath and get back to work.

In case you hadn't already heard, the cinema world's latest version of "Where's Waldo" -- the search for the actor to play the much-coveted role of teenage Anakin Skywalker in the second, as-yet-untitled "Star Wars" prequel -- has finally come to an end.The lucky guy is 19-year-old Hayden Christensen, a mostly unknown Canadian actor who was in the "Higher Ground" series for the Fox Family Channel and had a small part in the art-house cinema hit "The Virgin Suicides."

Interviewed by reporters after representatives from Lucasfilm Ltd. made the official announcement about his signing, Christensen sounded pretty giddy.

"My roommate walked in and handed me the phone, and it was my agent and manager, and they were pretty excited, so I knew as soon as I got on the phone. I walked outside just stunned and in disbelief," he said.

Perhaps even more important to "Star Warriors" -- fanatical devotees of the movies -- Christensen professed his love for the films as well.

" 'Star Wars' has always been big for my generation," Christensen said. "When ('Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace') came out, my entire high school went to the theater for the first showing. It was a big event, and to be a part of that now is very special."

Christensen's signing ends more than a year of speculation regarding the role. Several big-named actors were rumored about and discussed for the part, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Phillippe, as well as television stars James Van Der Beek, Jonathan Jackson and Colin Hanks. Even older thespians like Rick Schroeder and Brendan Fraser were thought to be in the running at one point.

But the on-screen chemistry between Hayden and his romantic co-star Natalie Portman, who will reprise her role as Queen Amidala, was what impressed both "Star Wars" universe creator George Lucas, who will direct the film, and producer Rick McCallum.

"I know we're in for some really great scenes between Natalie and Hayden," McCallum said during the press conference.

Almost as important, the actor playing the part had to look younger than Portman, which isn't easy, given her perpetual pre-pubescent visage.

That stipulation alone probably eliminated most of the "name" actors, none of whom were under serious consideration, according to McCallum.

In fact, he and Lucasfilm officials claim that none of the rumored group even auditioned for the part. However, Phillippe and Hanks did screen tests for Lucas and may have landed parts in the film -- though nothing has been announced yet. (Many rumor-mongering Web sites are already speculating that Phillippe will play Bail Organa, a character who winds up becoming the adoptive father of Princess Leia, while Hanks is rumored to be playing the grown-up Kitster, one of Anakin's friends on the planet Tatooine.)

By the way, that sigh of relief you may have heard echoing across the country is coming from a rather vocal group that doesn't like DiCaprio . . . and I mean really doesn't like him. (There were even a couple of Web sites specifically devoted to defeating his "candidacy" for the part of Anakin.)

Say what they will, the casting of Leo might not have been such a bad idea. For one thing, it never hurts to have one more "draw" in your movie that can bring in more guaranteed business.

It's also hard to predict just how Christensen will do -- especially given that Lucas and McCallum cast wooden Jake Lloyd instead of Haley Joel Osment in "The Phantom Menace," something that certainly clouds their casting acumen.

It's a moot point now. Even the gossip sites have shifted their attentions elsewhere, with speculation about who will play "Spider-Man" in Sam Raimi's movie adaptation of the Marvel comic.

But before you get too excited about this one, Raimi has already gone on record as saying he may wait as long as three months before he picks his Peter Parker. (The film won't start shooting until this fall, at the earliest.)

Also, Raimi, who's co-writing the screenplay with David Koepp, says that in the first movie at least, Peter will be a teenager, which would seem to rule out such rumored Spideys as Jude Law, Freddie Prinze Jr., Heath Ledger and Chris O'Donnell.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The audience, you have to twist them. You let them think they're ahead of you, but you're ahead of them. When you do that, you've got 'em." -- Joel Silver, producer of such movies as "The Matrix," sharing his philosophies on successful cinematic storytelling.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com