Elf (New Line, 2003)

I love Christmas movies, and I'm usually not the least bit picky. Paint something red and green, stick a tree in someone's living room, and I'm glued to the screen. But when I heard that Will Ferrell was starring in Elf, the latest bid for my holiday attention, I was suspicious. Would this Saturday Night Live alum, a man that streaked down the street in Old School, be able to pull off a Christmas movie without making it seem like a bad frat party joke?

Will plays Buddy, a human who was raised by Santa's elves in the North Pole. Adopted as an infant, he's lived his whole life with elves, and he doesn't even realize that he is human. When he finds out that he's not an elf, he heads to New York City to find the father he never knew. But Buddy's dad, Walter, is a publisher of children's books who is on Santa's "naughty" list, and when they meet, Buddy isn't a welcome surprise. Walter has a wife and young son at home, and Buddy just doesn't seem to fit in. It's up to Buddy to try to bring some Christmas spirit to his new family, and carve a niche out for himself in his new home.

Inspired casting is the rule of the day in this movie. James Caan plays Walter. Putting such a serious actor in this role lends it a certain gravitas, balancing the more outrageous scenes. And much to my surprise, there is a father-and-son chemistry between James Caan and Will Ferrell that translates to the screen. As with most mean-spirited Christmas humbugs, Walter's gruffness hides a heart waiting to be touched. Walter's scenes with his wife, Emily (played by thoroughly enjoyable Mary Steenburgen have the feel of a more serious movie, and gives the film a realistic feel. James Caan had to be talked into this role, or so I've heard. I'm glad he decided to do it.

Bob Newhart plays Papa Elf, the narrator of this tale, and the elf who raised Buddy. Having such a deadpan comedic actor play an elf should make fans of The Bob Newhart Show chuckle at the thought, and well they should. Seeing Bob's blank stare as he stands among a crowd of jumping, gleeful elves is just hilarious. And the opening sequence, when Papa Elf starts to tell us Buddy's story, has the feel of a disgruntled uncle sitting down and telling a bedtime story when he'd much rather be downstairs with his feet up.

Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous, The Good Girl) plays Jovie, an employee at Gimbels who Buddy falls for. Jovie is scared to sing in public, but Buddy listens in on her version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" when she thinks nobody else is listening. Her voice is beautiful, and reminiscent of Peggy Lee or Lena Horne. Her singing brings a real touch of Christmas spirit to the movie, and thankfully the soundtrack features this song, making it a must-have for any Christmas music collectors.

Ed Asner plays Santa as a gruff but lovable man who enjoys what he does, but is getting "too old for this job." And Amy Sedaris is Deb, Walter's secretary. She barely has any screen time at all, which is a shame, but at 95 minutes, they keep the action focused on Buddy.

That's my quibble with this movie. With so much of its time focused on Buddy and how he relates to society, the rest of the characters, with perhaps the exception of Walter, are prop men. This doesn't allow for much meaningful on-screen time for the rest of the cast. It's not that the movie suffers from too little character interaction. But it would have been nice if a few of the scenes were just a bit longer so I could get to know some of the other characters a little better. For example, how did grumpy Walter score such a kind and loving wife? It's easy to say that she sees something in him that no one else sees, but it would have liked the back story on that.

The movie has a music video-type feel, with plenty of montage sequences. Buddy at the North Pole, too big for the bed, the desk, the toilet. There are plenty of scenes where Buddy is quite literally not able to fit in. Buddy in New York City, amazed by revolving doors, taxis and cotton balls. I found myself laughing hysterically, forcing myself not to close my eyes so I wouldn't miss the next gag. That was difficult for me, since I have the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old. And the appetite, too; when Buddy says the four food groups are "candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup," I found myself nodding in agreement, wondering if I needed some Sno-Caps to go with my Twizzlers.

The movie's use of forced perspective during the scenes at the North Pole is very well done, but after The Lord of the Rings, it loses a bit of the originality it might have had. But no matter. The North Pole sets are bright and cheerful, and the elves look like they've stepped out of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In fact, the entire opening sequence looks like a slightly off-kilter Rankin-Bass Christmas special. Director Jon Favreau keeps this going throughout the movie. Stop-motion animals wish Buddy good luck on his journey, and Leon the Snowman (voiced by Leon Redbone) looks suspiciously like Burl Ives' Sam the Snowman from Rudolph. These classic touches reminded me of the children's specials I grew up with.

Elf is a rare treat in today's multiplex; a family movie that entertains the whole family. It's funny without being too silly or too vulgar, it's heartwarming without being drippy, and there's nary a curse word in sight. All this, and paper snowflakes! It's a movie that recharged my Christmas spirit, and it might just give me the energy to drag out my decorations and start whipping up eggnog.

 

[Denise Dutton]

The official site for Elf has just about everything you need to get into the Christmas spirit,
including "elf-help" books and an elf training test to see if you’re elf material.