REVIEW: Elf [2003]

“You sit on a throne of lies”

The exercise of revisiting films can have a happy ending. Looking back, I think I may have disregarded Elf more for the fact I was in an “I hate Will Ferrell” mood, than because it was a poorly made movie. It’s not like my idea of Ferrell has changed, but my opinion of the work definitely has. The viewing environment most likely played a role as well being that I was with three huge fans of both, so hearing them laugh and quote kept the mood light. I still don’t think it is any major achievement in cinema, nor even in the Christmas genre, but I can understand why so many hold it in such high esteem during the holidays. I’ll even admit that the fish-out-of-water antics of Buddy the Elf in New York City is some of the funniest stuff Ferrell has ever done. He sells every single moment—love the fruit-scented perfume scene—and really lends his man-child persona to full effect. It is a world of child-like wonder for him, keeping the laughs coming often and distracting me from its very predictable plot.

I did have to suspend my disbelief often, and not because of the story heavily pertaining to elves and North Pole inhabitants, but because the entire first quarter is just downright cartoony. I think back now to Iron Man and how great the green screen work was at the hands of director Jon Favreau and wonder if the technology really improved that much in five years because it’s not that great here. The miniaturization process is perfect, really adding some humor to see Ferrell tower over other elves like his adoptive father played by Bob Newhart, but the backgrounds were so fake. Interiors are very two dimensional and the blue outdoor sky looks as though the North Pole is inside a snow globe the way it’s curved. If somehow that was proven true, I wouldn’t be mentioning the issue, but they didn’t, so it all looks sloppy and crude to me. Maybe that was the intention—in fact I’m sure it was—I just think they could have done a much better job at bridging the sense of reality, or the filmmakers could have gone complete cartoon with things such as the Narwhal and wise snowman. Those were fun. It’s the lack of consistency either way that glaringly annoyed me.

But that’s enough of that; let’s get to what works. And what does is the palpable sense of the Christmas spirit throughout. Buddy walks into a department store on accident and ends up entering the perfect place for him to spend his free time. Thinking he is an employee, Faizon Love’s manager becomes the straight man to Ferrell’s quirks amongst the children. Buddy shows how elves decorate by constructing Lego cities, cutting hundreds of snowflake chains, and using Light Brites to announce Santa’s eventual visit. This is exactly where the film succeeds—the display of holiday cheer really getting the audience into the Christmas mood and the jokes going along with it, such as Ferrell discovering Santa is a fraud, (Artie Lange in a kid’s movie? Seriously?), holding even the biggest skeptic at bay. I’m sure it is the idea of elves in the workshop and Santa in Central Park that resonates with the younger kids, but it’s Buddy the Elf having his world turned around with his complete innocence clashing against a culture of white lies that gets the parents involved. His naivety begins to win the heart of Zooey Deschanel’s coworker Jovie and his lack of inhibition allows for hilarity with Peter Dinklage, sweet friendship with Amy Sedaris, and a volatile relationship with his birth father played by James Caan, the reason he left Santa’s workshop in the first place.

It is Caan that proves to be the best casting in this film. I know, Ferrell was born to play his role, but Caan’s hardened scrooge persona is pitch-perfect, making him the consummate candidate for a life overhaul into carol singing and syrup-topped spaghetti eating splendor. The guy is a formidable man, usually playing the fear-instilling father to pretty girls getting courted by goofball leading men in romantic comedies, so it’s nice to see him play that role in a different context. Nothing is new with this relationship evolution in terms of film history—Caan is a workhorse that has neglected his wife and son for too long, needing this wildcard to come in and open his eyes to what truly matters in life—but it doesn’t need to be. What makes it successful is that the film never tries to be more than that. Favreau and company knew what it was they were doing and decided not to overextend their resources. The story is about the Christmas spirit bringing a broken family together, it’s not trying to create world peace. Let Ferrell run free, have Caan be the wall to slow him down before eventually breaking, and pop in some laughs for the kids, (physical comedy), and for the adults, (social constraint breakdowns—Buddy taking street literature, running in revolving doors, and chewing gum on subway railings). You don’t actually need much more than that.

Elf 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Will Ferrell (left) as “Buddy” and James Caan (right) as “Walter” in New Line Cinema’s upcoming film Elf.
[2] Will Ferrell (left) as “Buddy” and Zooey Deschanel (right) as “Jovie” in New Line Cinema’s upcoming film Elf.


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