Elf
review by Gregory Avery, 7 November 2003

In Elf, Will Ferrell is cast in the role he was born to play -- that of Buddy, who, as a baby, toddled into Santa's toy bag one Christmas Eve and ended up at the North Pole, where he was raised by the toymaking elves (played by, fortunately, adult actors who have been size-reduced by visual FX). As an adult, Buddy does not entirely fit in with the elf community, so he is told where he can find his human father -- a book editor who, worst of all, is listed on the official North Pole books under the "Naughty" list. To Buddy, this is disparaging, to say the least.

The father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan, who sometimes has the long-suffering look of W.C. Fields contending with a family problem), who already has a wife (Mary Steenburgen, still lookin' gorgeous) and young son (Daniel Tay), edits children's books and doesn't want to be bothered with fixing a shipment that has left two pages of a story out. He also works in New York City across the street from Gimbel's, which works out because, not knowing what to make of him, Walter has Buddy thrown out onto the street and Buddy ends up working for a mite in Gimbel's Santa Claus display, where he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) -- she's not too sure what to make of him, either. But her guardedness makes a perfect compliment with his ingenuousness.

When Ferrell appeared in Old School, David Denby wrote that he had a "frighteningly infantile" quality -- a quality of nature that seems untouched and unaffected by adulthood. This is exactly the type of thing needed to make the character of Buddy work, and Ferrell plays him with both good comic sense and absolute earnestness -- Buddy never becomes cutesy, or overweening, or a character that the film condescends to. The picture never uses Buddy's naivete to make crude or cheap jokes at his expense. (About the worst thing Buddy does is let out a well-orchestrated belch after downing a liter of cola.) Buddy's cheerfulness, his industriousness, always telling the truth, and never doing anything unkind (Tennessee Williams said that the worst sin of all was the intentional infliction of cruelty), comes across as believable and winning, and Ferrell, in a display of great comedic and character acumen, gives a remarkably well-calibrated performance in the part (especially since he spends almost the entire movie wearing a green coat, yellow tights, pointy shoes and a pointy hat -- including the scenes filmed in downtown New York).

Buddy's reason for being is to be upbeat and pure, and the message of the film is -- well, if they had one to begin with, it doesn't turn up at the end. The film, which Jon Favreau (who wrote and acted in Swingers a while back) directed from an original screenplay by David Berenbaum, comes apart badly in its final act and winds up in a trammeled-up ending that's like a car pileup -- Buddy's human dad has second thoughts about rejecting him, Santa's sleigh needs an emergency fix, there's a parody of T.V. on-the-spot news coverage, a Christmas song singalong, an attempt to resolve the plot thread involving Buddy and Jovie, and some mounted policemen who look like they just galloped out of the last Lord of the Rings installment. The picture, consciously, evokes and borrows elements from other Christmas flicks like Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life (there might even be something from Terence Young's The Christmas Tree in there if you look hard enough), and there is brilliant rendition of the North Pole scenes as something out of a Rankin-Bass holiday special, replete with a Burl Ives-like snowman. Playing the bachelor elf who was placed in charge of raising the infant Buddy, Bob Newhart brings his unflappable, pleasantly nattering persona to the part, and turns out to be unexpectedly delightful (you wish there were a bit more of him in the film than there is).

The picture is first and foremost an entertainment, and while the film is considerably flawed (although I can't get mad at any picture that has the good sense to use Ella Fitzgerald's recording of Winter Wonderland), Ferrell's performance is enjoyable to watch. If he doesn't squander his time in too many inferior films -- something that happened to some very fine and talented comedians back in the Eighties -- he might end up giving us some great screen work.

Directed by:
Jon Favreau

Starring:
Will Ferrell
James Caan
Zooey Deschanel
Mary Steenburgen
Daniel Tay
Faizon Love
Peter Dinklage
Bob Newhart 
Edward Asner

Written by:
David Berenbaum

Rated:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may 
not be appropriate
for children.

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