Take a Christmas movie, add some Will Ferrell madness and mix with a fish out of water scenario and you have a movie that could irritate a lot of people but somehow ends up being able to please almost everyone, even those who dislike Will Ferrell.
Ferrell plays Buddy The Elf, a young man who isn’t actually an elf. When he was just a little tyke he managed to crawl into Santa’s sack and get whisked away to the North Pole and it’s been a good life even if he has felt a little bit different from everyone else. Raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), the time comes when Buddy finds out the truth about his background and decides he has to go and meet his real father (played by James Caan). This becomes even more important when Buddy finds out that his father is on the “naughty list”. Buddy soon finds himself confusing and upsetting things when he arrives in New York City and discovers the delights of road traffic, gum stuck on railings, leafleters, coffee and everything else he has missed in his rather sheltered life. Including the opposite sex (Zooey Deschanel is here as a possible love interest, and she’s suitably adorable).
Jon Favreau may be the man behind two superb superhero movies nowadays (both of the Iron Man movies have been a phenomenal success) but he wasn’t really proven by the time Elf came out. In fact, the only major release directed by him at the time was the poorly received Made although he had worked on a few other projects as well. But that’s just another thing that adds to the joy of Elf. Pretty much all of the signs were pointing towards a bad movie but it bucked the trend and ended up being something great. It is, in fact, one of my new seasonal favourites.
Christmas films always have to walk a fine line between festive cheer and outright schmaltziness and Elf’s biggest plus (arguably) is that it does just that and makes it seem quite effortless. Yes, a last act involving the need to spread Christmas cheer in order to help Santa fly and the rather sudden change in James Caan’s character come close to being a bit too sweet and neat but you’re never more than a minute or two away from a fun one-liner or some cynicism balancing things out.
The script by David Berenbaum is great, throwing in everything you’d expect from a standard Christmas tale (Santa, obviously, and the usual moral lessons about kindness and love being more important than the almighty dollar) with a whole bunch of things that you could laugh at in any context, never mind the fact that they’re surrounded by tinsel and holly. Ferrell telling a department store Santa that he sits “on a throne of lies” or repeatedly calling Peter Dinklage an elf, much to the man’s annoyance, is priceless but so is the scene with Peter Dinklage (who plays an arrogant writer of children’s tales) pitching some ideas to Caan and his underlings (all of whom work for a publishing house and need a hit quickly) and that’s one of the few scenes not showing a flake of snow or even one candy cane.
Will Ferrell is as good as he’s ever been here, doing his man-child dumb schtick with a sparkle in his eye and acting wild and excited while (most importantly) also being kept in check instead of going off on any 10-minute long improve rambles, which is why this is one Will Ferrell movie that those who usually dislike Ferrell may still end up liking. James Caan is gruff and very good in the thankless role of the Mr. Humbug who needs his eyes opened. Zooey Deschanel is lovely, Mary Steenburgen gets to be motherly and the appearances of Bob Newhart, Edward Asner, Artie Lange, Kyle Gass, Peter Dinklage all add to the festive fun.
So there you go. Take a Christmas movie, get all the main ingredients right even if others have their doubts, sprinkle a number of in-jokes and references to past Christmas cinematic glories over everything, soak in brandy and then set this up for a main course on Christmas Day that should go over well with most of the family.
DIRECTOR: JON FAVREAU
CAST: WILL FERRELL, ZOOEY DESCHANEL, JAMES CAAN, BOB NEWHART, PETER DINKLAGE, MARY STEENBURGEN
RUNTIME: 97 MINS APPROX