Director : Jon Favreau
Screenplay : David Berenbaum
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Will Ferrell (Buddy), James Caan (Walter), Bob Newhart (Papa Elf), Ed Asner (Santa), Mary Steenburgen (Emily), Zooey Deschanel (Jovie), Daniel Tay (Michael), Faizon Love (Gimbel's Manager), Peter Dinklage (Mile Finch)
Will Ferrell’s greatest gift as a comedic actor is his ability to convey a complete lack of self-awareness. All of his best characters from his seven-year run on Saturday Night Live, from his clueless Spartan cheerleader, to his hilarious impersonation of President Bush, have been built largely around either complete naïveté or personal misdirection. His characters are always dorks who think they’re cool.
In Jon Favreau’s charming holiday comedy Elf, Ferrell puts that persona to perfect use as Buddy, an orphan child who has been raised by Santa’s elves and, despite all evidence to the contrary, is sure that he is an elf, too. Despite the fact that he towers more than six feet high and is clumsy when it comes to making toys, Buddy is certain that he’s still one of the gang. When his adoptive father, Papa Elf (a sublimely cast Bob Newhart) finally breaks the news to him that he is, indeed, human, Buddy sets off to New York City in order to find his birth father, Walter (James Caan), a children’s book publisher who is such a cad that he’s landed on Santa’s “naughty list.”
This is where most of the film takes place, as Buddy tries to ingratiate himself into Walter’s family, which includes his long-suffering wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and their 10-year-old son, Michael (Daniel Tay). Buddy, who has the mentality of a lovestruck child (he wants to hug everyone and everything, including a raccoon and a man he meets on an elevator), sticks out like a sore thumb at first, particularly since he insists on wearing his elf clothes (one of the movie’s funniest running jokes is simply how goofy Ferrell looks in yellow tights). Yet, as all good characters do, he eventually wins others over, including Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a pretty but cynical young woman who works at the department store where Buddy works (where else can a six-foot-two elf find work but with a department store Santa?).
On paper, Elf seems like yet another silly-sentimental holiday comedy, yet it works again and again just when you think it should fail. Part of its charm is its old-fashioned visual appeal. Rather than relying on overworked computer-generated effects and massive production design ala Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), the filmmakers keep the look of Elf simple and direct by invoking the stop-motion animation and simplistic sets of Rankin/Bass TV specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s a clever way to immediately evoke nostalgia and good will, as though Buddy is part of the same endearing claymation universe as Rudolph and Sam the Snowman (who is amusingly invoked by a lookalike know-it-all named Leon the Snowman).
Elf does have it clumsy moments, including an overly drawn-out climax involving Buddy helping Santa (Ed Asner in another sublime casting choice) get his sleigh up and running when New York loses its Christmas spirit (this sequence borders on outright weirdness when a group of mounted policemen who look just like the Ringwraiths from The Lords of the Rings show up on-screen). It is only here that the movie at all feels like it’s sinking into a holiday movie formula. Yet, even that misstep is not nearly enough to undermine the humor, warmth, and intelligence that came before.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick