Exactly one year ago to this weekend, the holiday movie season officially
began with "The Santa Clause 2," a cute but hollow confection that
was made for the sole reason of cashing in on its successful predecessor.
This year's holiday introduction, "Elf," directed by Jon Favreau (1996's
"Swingers"), gets the formula exactly right. The film is magical,
warm-spirited, and very funny without having to strain for laughs
or pander to a specific audience. Best of all, it features a wondrously
perfect performance by Will Ferrell (2003's "Old School") in the first
motion picture he has toplined on his own. If "Elf" is any indication,
Ferrell has a long acting future ahead of him.
Ever since he crawled into Santa's toy bag as an infant, orphan Buddy
(Will Ferrell) has lived at the North Pole, working alongside elves
(despite the drastic height difference) and having the time of his
life. However, when he discovers he is actually a human and that his
estranged father, high-powered publisher Walter, lives in Manhattan,
Buddy ventures out into "the real world" for the first time in his
life. With such an everlastingly optimistic outlook on anything and
everything, the harsh realities of a world where the Land of Gumdrops
is not know to exist mix problematically with Buddy. While Walter's
wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and son, Michael (Daniel Tay), quickly
warm up to Buddy, and he becomes smitten with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel),
a beautiful department store elf, Buddy finds himself misunderstood
and unwanted by Walter, who has lost the Christmas spirit.
"Elf" may not match the heights of my personal favorite Christmas
features, 1983's "A Christmas Story," 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas
Vacation," and 1989's "Prancer," but it comes awfully close, at least
equaling the likes of 1985's wonderful "One Magic Christmas." Delightful
for children and adults alike, both of whom will be supremely entertained
without being looked down upon, it is one of those all-too-rare releases
that encompasses age boundaries. The jokes, many of which are of the
physical variety, avoid tastelessness and bathroom humor and are all
the more funny because they shoot for the clever rather than boring
fart and poop gags. And at its center is a sweet, good-hearted message
about not taking the things most important in life for granted. Its
threat of schmaltz is quickly done away with because it becomes clear
director Jon Favreau and screenwriter David Berenbaum are so genuine.
As the innocent, starry-eyed, happy Buddy, Will Ferrell has never
been better. In everything from his mannerisms to his physical reactions
to the emotional depth he brings, Ferrell has created Buddy from head
to toe, blessing him with such an effervescence and originality that
he is easily one of the most singularly lovable film characters of
the year. With "Elf," Ferrell proves he is not only a splendid comedian,
but that he has actual acting range. As the work-minded Walter, who
gradually learns from Buddy how neglectful he has been to his wife
and child, James Caan (1999's "Mickey Blue Eyes") meshes surprisingly
well with Ferrell and the family genre.
Adding femme support, Mary Steenburgen (2003's "Casa de los Babys")
radiates caring and true sweetness as Buddy's new stepmother, Emily,
while Zooey Deschanel (2000's "Almost Famous") gets a chance to further
show off her offbeat charms and introduce a lovely singing voice as
Buddy's love interest, Jovie. Deschanel's talents far exceed the limited
challenge asked of her in this decidedly thin role, but she is fine
nonetheless, eschewing the predictable for some interesting character
choices. Deschanel and Ferrell share an unusual date in the second
half that is so appealing and sweet it single-handedly confirms the pair's chemistry.
Creative visual flourishes often fill the frame from top to bottom.
The old-school stop-motion animation of such perennial TV classics
as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" makes a nostalgic return in the
form of several North Pole creatures. When it snows, the flakes are
intricately designed, rather than tiny white dots. And the irresistible
wonder of Christmas is fully captured in an uplifting finale, complete
with carols and a ride with Santa on his slay through the skyscrapers of New York City.
"Elf" is a predictable motion picture, yes. It is also fairly lightweight.
And certain aspects, particularly some of the supporting roles, could
have afforded some extra meat. It doesn't matter. The film is a glorious
return to the level of quality in holiday features that has been so
glaringly lacking in recent years. Filled to bursting with joy, creativity,
and good cheer, "Elf" is one early Christmas gift that does not disappoint.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman