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Elf (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jan 14, 2021


ELF (2003)

Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart,  Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, Daniel Tay, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Jon Favreau, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Artie Lange, Claire Lautier and the voices of Leon Redbone and Ray Harryhausen.

Screenplay by David Berenbaum.

Directed by Jon Favreau.

Distributed by New Line Cinema.  Rated PG.  95 minutes.

Okay, I have to fess up.  I went into Elf expecting it to stink. 

Now this kind of thing is pretty rare.  As a reviewer, I try very hard not to go into a film with any preconceptions.  But, I’ve never found Will Ferrell particularly funny and the storyline and coming attractions trailer looked a little stupid. 

There is also the fact that it is a movie starring a former star of Saturday Night Live.  Even the cast members I’ve liked have much more have often stunk on the big screen, and the cast members I never really liked… well, the names Corky Romano, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo and Beverly Hills Ninja come to mind. 

Christmas comedies in recent years have been pretty tough to take, too… The Santa Clause or Jingle All the Way anyone?  So, I have to admit, I went into Elf steeled for a truly painful movie-going experience.

Well, I’m happy to say that I was dead wrong.  

Elf isn’t a perfect film, but it is actually a very charming fable.  The movie is loosely based on the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials.  The credits and the early scenes in the North Pole are a brilliant pastiche of those old TV classics like Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  

One year when Santa (Ed Asner) is making his rounds, he mistakenly picks up a baby who climbed into his sack at an orphanage.  He is adopted by the head Elf (Bob Newhart, using his deadpan humor to glorious effect) and raised as an elf.  Of course, eventually he grows to be a full-sized human and feels strangely out of place.  So his adapted father sits him down and tells Buddy the truth.

So Buddy sets off to New York City to meet his real father.  James Caan plays the dad as a workaholic bad-tempered children’s publishing executive.  At first,  he wants nothing to do with the crazy guy in the green suit who claims to be his son and love him.  But his good-hearted wife (Mary Steenburgen) insists they take him in and soon their disaffected younger son (Daniel Tay) is bonding with his new big brother.

This sets off a series of fish-out-of-water gags as Buddy the elf learns about life in the big city.  You’ve seen variations on this theme hundreds of times… the naïve traveler facing New York for the first time… but it is done with enough good humor and lack of cynicism that you’re willing to give the film a pass for its lack of originality. 

Of course there is a beautiful woman (Zooey Deschanel) who has become hardened and has to be melted by Buddy’s innocence, and reminded of the true meaning of Christmas.  And of course, Buddy has to save Christmas when Santa’s sleigh crashes in Central Park.

As you can see, the film is not exactly original, but it still works surprisingly well.  The biggest revelation here is Ferrell.  His characterization of Buddy is winningly optimistic in the face of all obstacles.  The portrayal is dazzlingly un-ironic; something quite amazing in these cynical times.  Ferrell throws himself into the mindset of this child in a man’s body and is almost constantly on target.  I could have lived without the belching contest, but otherwise Buddy truly is impossible to dislike.  Caan and Newhart also provide laughs by toying with their images.

So, I have to come clean.  When I’m wrong, I’m wrong.  Elf is much better than I ever thought it would be.  (11/03)

Alex Diamond

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Posted: December 21, 2003.

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