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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Elf

Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan
Director: Jon Favreau
Rated: PG
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: November 2003
Genres: Comedy, Christmas, Family

*Also starring: Edward Asner, Patrick Baynham, Annie Brebner, Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay, Michael Roberds, Luke Pohl, Bob Newhart, Faizon Love

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

ned at: MGM, NYC, 11/3/03

There's a quote that impresses me apropos to this movie, from 1 Corinthians 13:11: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." While the speaker presumably wants to sound mature and rational, he is unfortunate, given that children who are lucky in selecting good parents can enjoy life to a degree that grown-ups find impossible to duplicate. You can't blame Peter Pan for wanting never to grow up. After all, who wants to give up snowball fights, the child-like joy of finding Christmas presents under a tree that you simply know were dropped off by Santa, and (in my day) the pleasure of playing stickball, stoop-ball, and punchball on the street? Nothing can substitute for that very first time you see the world anew with a visit to a department store, a pet kennel, or enjoy the love and licks of your very first puppy. Will Ferrell, a comic genius, is well aware of the pain of lost childhood. He does his best to hold on to his inner child, or as the tagline to New Line's holiday movie would have it, "Find you inner elf." In his role as Buddy the human being who'd choose to remain an elf, he appeals to the child in each of us, the grownup who must get up each day at 6:30 and, instead of looking forward to fingerpainting or a trip to the Macy's Day Parade or a ride on the Wonder Wheel, must instead don a coat and tie and trudge off to an office cubicle, a factory to make new widgets, even a coal mine.

There are compensations to being a grownup, I suppose, but you'd never know this from "Elf," which turns out to be one of the more delightful holiday films to hit the screen in the last decade.

In a story with at least one visual that could have been inspired by Steven Spielberg's "E.T.", several that will remind you of the Tom Hanks character in the Penny Marshall's 1988 work "Big" (a 12-year-old wakes up to find he's a 30-year-old man who has lost none of his innocence), and Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," Will Ferrell stars in a comedy- fantasy about a man who has started off life in an orphanage, sneaks into Santa's sack at the age of one year or so, winds up in the North Pole and is raised as an elf. A fish out of water, Buddy is strung along by his stepdad, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) until he messes up so badly that the news is broken to him. He's human and he'd do well to return to his biological father, Walter, (James Caan) and meet his half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay) and stepmother, Emily (Mary Steenburgen). A good deal of the story is predictable, e.g. will the money-grubbing, Scrooge of a dad, Walter, regain the spirit of Christmas and bond anew with Michael, shucking the insane demands of his publishing house? (Duh.)

Predictability is no problem, because under Jon Favreau's directing, which keeps David Berenbaum's story moving at a rapid pace, Ferrell's performance is the picture. Think of a 12- year-old dropped into the heart of New York City after having spent his childhood on a snowy Vermont farm, and you can imagine the comical incidents in store...hit by a cab (twice), meeting an adorable young woman, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and experiencing for the first time his "tongue swelling up" when he is near her, winning over the affection of young Michael, who considers the new guy in the house to be a geek until he demonstrates his ability to fire snowballs at a trio of kids with the speed of an Uzi.

Zooey Deschanel can do no wrong: she's just fine here as the cynical department-store worker who, like Michael, is embarrassed by Buddy's childish antics but grows to like him (and she can sing, as well as play the dry-humored woman of "The Good Girl"). James Caan is perfectly cast as the guy who'd rather have dinner in his room in order to catch up on his work rather than sit and bond with his wife and son. "Elf" features a terrific scene as well from a real dwarf, Peter Dinlklage (as writer Mile Finch), a guy whose patience is challenged by Buddy. "Elf" should rank high on an adult's list, to say nothing of its being a top priority for your kids.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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