Exactly one year ago to this weekend, the holiday movie season officially began with "The Santa Clause 2
," a cute but hollow confection that was made for the sole reason of cashing in on its successful predecessor. This year's holiday introduction, "Elf," directed by Jon Favreau (1996's "Swingers"), gets the formula exactly right. The film is magical, warm-spirited, and very funny without having to strain for laughs or pander to a specific audience. Best of all, it features a wondrously perfect performance by Will Ferrell (2003's "Old School
") in the first motion picture he has toplined on his own. If "Elf" is any indication, Ferrell has a long acting future ahead of him.
Ever since he crawled into Santa's toy bag as an infant, orphan Buddy (Will Ferrell) has lived at the North Pole, working alongside elves (despite the drastic height difference) and having the time of his life. However, when he discovers he is actually a human and that his estranged father, high-powered publisher Walter, lives in Manhattan, Buddy ventures out into "the real world" for the first time in his life. With such an everlastingly optimistic outlook on anything and everything, the harsh realities of a world where the Land of Gumdrops is not know to exist mix problematically with Buddy. While Walter's wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and son, Michael (Daniel Tay), quickly warm up to Buddy, and he becomes smitten with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a beautiful department store elf, Buddy finds himself misunderstood and unwanted by Walter, who has lost the Christmas spirit.
"Elf" may not match the heights of my personal favorite Christmas features, 1983's "A Christmas Story," 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," and 1989's "Prancer," but it comes awfully close, at least equaling the likes of 1985's wonderful "One Magic Christmas." Delightful for children and adults alike, both of whom will be supremely entertained without being looked down upon, it is one of those all-too-rare releases that encompasses age boundaries. The jokes, many of which are of the physical variety, avoid tastelessness and bathroom humor and are all the more funny because they shoot for the clever rather than boring fart and poop gags. And at its center is a sweet, good-hearted message about not taking the things most important in life for granted. Its threat of schmaltz is quickly done away with because it becomes clear director Jon Favreau and screenwriter David Berenbaum are so genuine.
As the innocent, starry-eyed, happy Buddy, Will Ferrell has never been better. In everything from his mannerisms to his physical reactions to the emotional depth he brings, Ferrell has created Buddy from head to toe, blessing him with such an effervescence and originality that he is easily one of the most singularly lovable film characters of the year. With "Elf," Ferrell proves he is not only a splendid comedian, but that he has actual acting range. As the work-minded Walter, who gradually learns from Buddy how neglectful he has been to his wife and child, James Caan (1999's "Mickey Blue Eyes
") meshes surprisingly well with Ferrell and the family genre.
Adding femme support, Mary Steenburgen (2003's "Casa de los Babys
") radiates caring and true sweetness as Buddy's new stepmother, Emily, while Zooey Deschanel (2000's "Almost Famous
") gets a chance to further show off her offbeat charms and introduce a lovely singing voice as Buddy's love interest, Jovie. Deschanel's talents far exceed the limited challenge asked of her in this decidedly thin role, but she is fine nonetheless, eschewing the predictable for some interesting character choices. Deschanel and Ferrell share an unusual date in the second half that is so appealing and sweet it single-handedly confirms the pair's chemistry.
Creative visual flourishes often fill the frame from top to bottom. The old-school stop-motion animation of such perennial TV classics as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" makes a nostalgic return in the form of several North Pole creatures. When it snows, the flakes are intricately designed, rather than tiny white dots. And the irresistible wonder of Christmas is fully captured in an uplifting finale, complete with carols and a ride with Santa on his slay through the skyscrapers of New York City.
"Elf" is a predictable motion picture, yes. It is also fairly lightweight. And certain aspects, particularly some of the supporting roles, could have afforded some extra meat. It doesn't matter. The film is a glorious return to the level of quality in holiday features that has been so glaringly lacking in recent years. Filled to bursting with joy, creativity, and good cheer, "Elf" is one early Christmas gift that does not disappoint.