Elf (2003) Movie Review

“Elf”, as most people who have seen it will tell you, is pretty funny. And to make a long story short, it’s all due to Will Ferrell, who gives such an endearing and all-out performance that you just can’t help but love the big guy.

Ferrell plays Buddy, a human child who arrives at Santa’s North Pole workshop by accident. He’s quickly adopted by lonely elf Bob Newhart, who raises the human child to adulthood, where he’s played by Ferrell as a 30-year old manchild. Although he is obviously not meant for the elf world, Buddy is nevertheless clueless about his real origins. That is, until the secret is let out of the bag. Buddy resolves to find his real father, a bigshot in New York City, and sets off for the Big Apple using, well, a sheet of ice floating on the, ah, ocean.

In any case, Buddy makes it to New York, where he meets his real father, Walter (James Caan). Unfortunately for our happy-go-lucky hero, Walter is a scrooge, which seems to be an odd disposition for someone whose job is to publish happy children’s books. While trying to make his way through the city and get to know his father’s family, Buddy takes the time to get a job at a department store, fall in love with a store elf, expose a fake store Santa, and turn Etch-a-Sketches into works of art. Not bad for an orphan.

Obviously “Elf” will be most funny to people who enjoys Will Ferrell’s brand of comedy. Although I have to admit, I felt the awkward vibe when Buddy started to romance Zooey Deschanel (daughter of famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), especially in light of the film’s treatment of Buddy as a manchild. I don’t know if we were supposed to treat the romance as a gag, but it certainly came across as something more. (And in fact, the film’s coda is rather, er, uncomfortable.)

The movie itself doesn’t waste a lot of time to get to its culture clash moments, with Ferrell’s giant size (at least in comparison to the elf world) eliciting a number of funny jokes. There are less ready gags once Buddy returns to the human world, with much of the jokes centered on a 6-foot-plus guy walking around New York wearing tight leotards and a pointy hat. There’s also a really funny scene toward the end when Buddy is beaten up by Peter Dinklage, an actor of short stature who Buddy mistakens for an elf.

For the most part “Elf” works, if only because Will Ferrell is just so bloody affable. Another funny scene involves Buddy being banished to the mailroom, where he ends up turning the depressing environment into a party. The ending, when Edward Asner’s Santa Claus shows up, is probably too sugary for my taste. Although it’s been established early on that Santa is real, and he flies around on a jet-powered sled, seeing reindeers and Santa flying over New York City somewhat ruined the conceit of a tall guy dressed in an elf costume getting into misadventures. I know the movie is fantasy, but for a while there it was fun just to think of Buddy as a screwed up guy who never grew up, and who thinks he’s an elf.

To be sure, the script by David Berenbaum is very trite. You can basically predict the movie’s outcome from the very first frame. Heck, if you’ve seen enough of these Feel Good Christmas movies, you could probably predict the whole narrative, from the last-minute obstacle that threatens to unravel our happy movie, to how it’s saved. One wishes the film could have tried something new, but it wasn’t to be.

“Elf” is nothing original, unless you consider Will Ferrell dressing up as an elf as originality. Which I suppose it is, since there’s very few people like Ferrell to begin with. It’s mostly funny, and the star is definitely a big plus. Even the poor special effects don’t really register, mostly because they were designed to stand out and look poor onscreen on purpose. Even if this assumption is wrong, “Elf” is so innocent and harmless that you don’t mind giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt anyway.

For those who want a stronger dose of the Christmas spirit, take a look at Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa”. Now that’s one unpredictable, messy, vulgar, and probably the best Christmas movie in the guise of being anti-Christmas.

Jon Favreau (director) / David Berenbaum (screenplay)
CAST: Will Ferrell …. Buddy
James Caan …. Walter
Bob Newhart …. Papa Elf
Edward Asner …. Santa
Mary Steenburgen …. Emily
Zooey Deschanel …. Jovie

Buy Elf on DVD