Ferrell is twice as big as anyone who lives in the North Pole,
except for Santa, in Jon Favreau's "Elf."
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by David Berenbaum
Produced by Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki and Shauna Weinberg
Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary
Steenburgen, Daniel Tay, Bob Newhart, Edward Asner and Jane Bradburry
(out of four)
the only way to make a sweet, sticky, sincere family Christmas comedy
work in this age is to frame it in cynicism. “Elf” does
just that, placing a jollily extreme performance by Will Ferrell
in a world that responds to his insane behavior the same way that
most people would respond to a man whom elves raised. Ferrell’s
character might be an obnoxious maniac, but he’s a sweet obnoxious
maniac who believes the things that everyone wants to believe and
eats candy for every meal—with maple syrup on his spaghetti.
As an orphaned baby, Ferrell’s character Buddy crawled into
Santa’s toy bag and wound up on the North Pole, where elves
raised him. As his adopted father Pappa Elf, Bob Newhart narrates
the story and reveals that elves either make shoes while the cobbler
sleeps, bake cookies in trees (a serious fire hazard) or make toys
in Santa’s workshop, the Time job known as “the show.”
Writer/director Jon Favreau, who made 2001’s “Made”
and wrote and starred in the cult favorite “Swingers,”
isn’t known for family films. This may be the source of the
refreshingly smart humor in “Elf.” While uncredited
for the original screenplay by David Berenbaum, Favreau’s
nuances and clever details surface in the dialogue.
The portrait of the North Pole is a clever collection of elements
from old storybooks and TV Christmas specials. A fake, mustached
snowman, toy animals and the Candy Cane Forest all make appearances.
Buddy manages to live completely oblivious to the easily observed
fact that he’s not an elf, but a human more than twice his
father’s—and any other elf’s—size. After
failing to produce thousands of toys a day like the other elves
and overhearing an eye-opening conversation, Buddy realizes that
he’s human. Worse, when Santa tells him about the news, he
reveals that Buddy’s father is on the naughty list.
A brilliantly cast James Caan plays Buddy’s biological father,
a workaholic children’s book publisher who is introduced to
the film while demanding money from nuns for books in their children’s
hospital. Mary Steenburgen plays Buddy’s stepmom, and Daniel
Tay plays his stepbrother, Michael, both of whom receive the new
family member better than the father.
After a paternity test, a doctor (Favreau) tells Buddy’s father
that his son is repressed and he needs to raise him as if he were
a child to help him snap out of thinking that he lived with Santa.
Buddy walks from the North Pole to New York City, where he still
wears his sharp, green elf wardrobe, which gets him temporarily
mistaken for a department-store employee. At the store, he meets
Jovie, played by the majestic Zooey Deschanel, who brings a mystified
spirit to the part. Buddy scares her a bit with a level of friendliness
that’s usually identified with insanity, but also charms her
with his energy and innocence.
Not all the material works, like the climax of the sequence in which
the funny Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent,” also
opening this weekend) plays a writer who helps Buddy’s dad
develop a new book idea for his failing company. The joke of Buddy’s
ignorance gets old at times.
Fortunately, Ferrell plays Buddy in a balls-out performance. Other
actors might have been timid, but Ferrell does whatever he needs
to do to get a laugh. Even when the material isn’t quite working,
it’s still fun to watch him in action, as he stays up all
night to decorate the department store with Christmas lights, Etch-A-Sketches,
Night Brights and anything else he can find in the store—just
because he heard that Santa was coming tomorrow.
The film takes on a dry wit in its cheesiness. Santa’s sled
needs fuel to supplement the Christmas spirit, Pappa Elf tells Buddy,
because people don’t believe in Santa anymore. There’s
a rumor that the parents put the presents under the tree. “I
suppose they eat the cookies, too!” Buddy responds.
This type of humor helps balance “Elf’s” sentimentality
and create a smarter, wiser film than the average Christmas comedy.