"The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear."
Hollywood, it would appear, is determined to inundate movie-goers with at least one holiday-style motion picture at Christmastime every year. These festive movies are intended to be warm and heartfelt, and are designed to lift our spirits, but only very few will end up making the hall of fame. Films such as National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life are a few examples of well-adored Christmas movies. But with the arrival of 2003's Elf, you can add a new title to your annual Christmas Eve movie night. Directed by the little-known (at the time) Jon Favreau, this is a bright, warm, charming and delightful film that manages to hit a home run in terms of laughter, heartfelt emotion, and Christmas spirit. It never seems trite or forced, it never appears to play to the lowest common denominator, and, more importantly, it was a strong step forward for Will Ferrell's career as a leading man.
Elf is the tale of a man named Buddy (Ferrell). As a toddler living in an orphanage, he crawls into Santa's toy bag and accidentally ends up in the North Pole. Santa (Asner) and the elves opt to raise Buddy (who is named as such due to the brand of diapers he's wearing) to believe he is himself an elf, despite physical evidence to the contrary. As an adult, Buddy finally learns of his true heritage and sets out to New York City to find his biological father: Walter Hobbs (Caan), a children's book editor who's gruff, busy and has absolutely no knowledge that Buddy was ever born. In NYC, Buddy encounters an unfamiliar culture, a father who doesn't want to acknowledge his existence, and an attractive...okay, VERY attractive girl named Jovie (the lovely Zooey Deschanel) who captures his heart.
This sets the stage for what turns out to be the jolliest, funniest, most deliriously whimsical family comedy in years. Buddy's adventures in New York City are what one would expect: he's fascinated by revolving doors, he takes at face value a café's assertion that it makes the "world's best cup of coffee", he hasn't dealt with cars before, and he isn't used to unfriendly critters. In terms of storyline, Elf adheres to the well-worn, Hollywood-approved tale of an outsider trying to fit into a new world who wins over all those he comes into contact with. The result could have been a saccharine-coated blast of faux holiday charm, but under the watchful eye of director Favreau, Elf is disarming, genuinely hilarious and touching. And, to the credit of Favreau, the pace is delightfully brisk.
(See what I mean about her? This is a review of a kid's movie, so I'll just say... I'd *beep* the *beep* out of that *beep*ing gorgeous thing)
Part of the reason why the film works when it should fail is the visual appeal. Rather than relying on overworked computer-generated effects, the look of Elf is kept simple and direct through the utilisation of stop-motion animation techniques and simplistic yet effective sets. It's a clever way to evoke nostalgia and good will. Another masterstroke is a generous helping of references to past classics of the genre. For one, Favreau enlisted the aid of stop-motion specialists The Chiodo Brothers to bring this fantastically skewed version of the North Pole to life. And the clever creative decisions dive even further into the collective pop culture consciousness with the spot-on casting of television comedic deities Bob Newhart and Ed Asner. The additional casting of improvisation-oriented actors such as Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Amy Sedaris and Arty Lang in minor roles is equally inspired. Other off-kilter touches include a cameo appearance of by stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen, while an extra good omen comes in the form of Peter Billingsley in a cameo role as an elf workshop manager. Many years ago, Billingsley played the main role in the classic A Christmas Story. Good luck charms can't come better than that.
Elf does have its clumsy patches. The film admittedly feels like a mere showcase of vignettes and skits, not to mention there's a lingering sense of predictability, and it lacks depth. Added to this, Elf is hindered by an overly drawn-out, cheesy climax involving Buddy as he tries to help Santa get his sleigh running when New York loses its Christmas spirit. This entire sequence borders on outright weirdness as soon as a group of mounted police (who resemble the Ringwraiths from the Lord of the Rings trilogy) show up. It is only during this climax that the film feels as if it's sinking into a Christmas movie formula. But even these missteps are not nearly enough to undermine the humour, warmth, charm and intelligence surrounding them.
On Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell's comic genius was derived from his mastery of one of comedy's most basic ingredients: the necessity to be committed. Nearly anything can be funny, no matter how absurd, as long as the performer believes in what he's doing. If there's a sign of doubt in the actor's eyes - a glimmer of "This is rather silly, isn't it?" - the spell is broken and the humour is diluted. Ferrell constantly demonstrated his sound understanding of this principle during his seven-year SNL stint, and he does it again in Elf - and heavens me, the way he sells his character is hysterical. The sight of the tall, lanky Ferrell in tights alone is enough to elicit uncontrollable burst of laughter, but when he tacks on his persona of a completely innocent, blithely naïve man-child...you can pretty much forget about catching your breath most of the time. While he's outrageously silly when it's called for, there's also sincerity behind his performance. This translates into instant empathy for what is otherwise a totally unrealistic character. Alongside Ferrell, the curmudgeonly James Caan plays Buddy's real father in a rather Scrooge-like manner. And what would a holiday film be without romance? In this case, there's the unbelievably gorgeous Zooey Deschanel whose doe-eyed reserve plays well against Ferrell's ADD bravado. Bob Newhart is certainly worth a mention as well; his dry narration at the beginning and end is witty, well-delivered and very, very funny.
Sure, Elf is obviously a mainstream creation; it's a Christmas film, after all. But it's set apart from the rest of the pack because it works on a variety of levels. It works as a light-hearted family film, a highly energetic comedy, and a holiday film that's as surprising as it is hilarious. Elf will warm the heart, tickle the funny bone, and make Christmas feel like it can't come fast enough.