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Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Will Ferrell, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart
ill Ferrell—the man is fucking funny. You know him from his Herculean feat on Saturday Night Live, the one where he strapped the whole cast on his back and dragged them nearly to the realm of adequacy. Anyone who can make Chris Kattan and Cheri Oteri survive the remote control guillotine truly deserves a spot in the comedy hall of fame. Well, it’s been a year or two since Ferrell hung up the SNL spurs, and the time has come to decide whether he goes the way of a Bill Murray or a Dana Carvey. In case you’re complaining to yourself, “Hey, I like Dana Carvey!”, recall Master of Disguise . . . that horrible pain you now feel should snap you back to sanity.
After the predictably abominable A Night at the Roxbury and a couple of small but hilarious roles in recent years (Austin Powers 2 and Zoolander), Ferrell got a chance at the semi-big time with Old School. His loveable second banana, “Frank the Tank”, was by far the best thing about the movie, vaulting him (hopefully) into the minds of comedy filmmakers everywhere. With Elf, Ferrell gets his first shot at a starring role (SNL character-based movies don’t count), and makes the most of it.
During a Christmas Eve visit to a New York orphanage, a bouncing baby boy with monogrammed diapers (Little Buddy’s) climbs into Santa’s magic bag in search of a mesmerizing teddy bear. Father Christmas does not take notice of his excess luggage until he returns to the elfin workshop, and when Buddy spills out of the red velvet sack, kindly old “Papa Elf” (Bob Newhart) adopts him on the spot. And so, Buddy (Ferrell) is raised as an elf, utterly oblivious to the fact that he differs from his brethren.
Thirty years later, following some inadequacies in the workshop (he’s only able to produce 85 Etch-a-Sketches per day rather than the requisite 1000), a height differential of a few feet and an overheard conversation between two older elves, Buddy begins to contemplate his situation. Shortly thereafter, Papa Elf drops the adoption bomb. Buddy’s father, Walter Hobbes (James Caan), had unknowingly impregnated his high school sweetheart. The sweetheart had in turn secretly given birth to her son, put him up for adoption, and then died young (conveniently). Buddy, upon hearing his familial history, sets out to find his biological dad.
Yes, the plot contrivances are thick in pushing Buddy towards his noble quest, but Elf is a Christmas movie, and the acknowledged genre limitations make the forced situations forgivable. Where the movie succeeds most is in chronicling Buddy’s fish-out-of-water experience in Manhattan. Although perhaps a tad too reminiscent of Big, Buddy’s reactions to the human city provide some of the funniest moments of the film. Ferrell’s character is endearing and real, following the logical reactions of a Christmas Elf brought to a new world. His naiveté and unrelenting sweetness are organic, coming from a man raised in a fairy tale North Pole.
Once he arrives in New York, Buddy attempts to reconnect with his lost dad. Papa, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with the 6 foot 4 inch crazy man standing before him in an elf suit. Mr. Hobbes calls his security guards, who escort Buddy from the building and mockingly suggest he return to Gimbel’s (a department store). Taking their quip literally, Buddy goes to the Christmas display at Gimbel’s and meets his love interest, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Jovie is the beautiful, bored girl in a menial job of whom Deschanel has seemed to become the patron saint (Almost Famous, The Good Girl). More importantly to Elf, Jovie has a heart of gold and is one of the few humans who does not immediately dismiss Buddy.
For the next hour or so, Buddy sets about the tasks of wooing Jovie, reuniting with and humanizing his dad, strengthening his newfound family (complete with hardened 12 year old, half brother Michael), and saving Christmas. The completion of these missions could have drowned the film in oceans of sickly-sweet syrup, but director Jon Favreau (that’s right, The Gut-Man from PCU) navigates through the sap fairly well. Of course some of Elf’s worse moments make the cynic’s black heart skip a beat or two, but for the most part the cheese level is acceptable. Also worthy of praise is the exceptional job by the director and friends of making Buddy seem absolutely gargantuan in comparison to the workshop elves. The set designs and camera angles were impeccable in that respect.
Elf is both funny and surprisingly touching. While there are some moments where the writers attempt to manufacture emotion (an impromptu sing-along with all of New York and Mary Steenburgen’s entire character), Bob Newhart’s deft performance as Papa Elf helps push the film more towards genuine warmth. Also, Buddy’s relationships with young Michael (Daniel Tay) and Jovie are handled well after their exceedingly light initial resistance to his charm.
If you’re in the mood for some light-hearted fun, have children or nephews/nieces, or just want to see Will Ferrell be an insane elf for a couple hours, there are not many better options than this. Elf is easily worthy of a look; if you can just remember that Christmas movies are required to contain a few overly sweet scenes, your expectations should be met quite easily.
By: Kevin Worrall
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