November 13, 2003


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In Elf, directed by Jon Favreau, Will Ferrell plays Buddy the Elf, a human who accidentally got taken up to the North Pole in Santa’s sack of gifts as a baby. Buddy is raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), Santa Clause’s (Ed Asner) right hand man, never realizing he’s not an elf. When Buddy discovers he’s really human, he sets out to find his real father, who never knew that he had an older son, in New York City.

Clad in a green elf suit, Buddy tries to adapt to life in the big city, but actually succeeds more in infecting those around him with his foolish, innocent goodness. Buddy’s mission is to bring the Christmas spirit to his estranged biological father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), who is on Santa’s Naughty List. Walter works at the expense of spending time with his wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and second son, Michael (Daniel Tay). What follows is predictable — Buddy develops a friendship with his new brother Michael, develops a love-interest in a department store elf, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and irritates the hell out of the high-strung patriarch Walter.

Elf succeeds as a goofy comedy, but the script doesn’t afford Ferrell enough room for his usual, outrageous physical humor. This is not the “Hank the Tank” Will Ferrell you know from Old School, and you get the feeling that Ferrell is holding back. He conveys the innocence of Buddy so sincerely that it’s almost painful to watch. As Buddy, Ferrell spends most of the movie with an amazed, childlike smile on his face, and much of the humor arises from Buddy’s misbehavior in every social situation. However, there are still plenty of sight gags and physical humor, including Buddy tackling a mall-Santa because he’s an impostor.

On the director’s end, Favreau’s playfully overdramatic style fits in with Elf’s generally playful mood, highlighted during a snowball fight in which Buddy and Michael defend themselves from an ambush. As the attackers flee in terror at Buddy’s rapid-fire barrage of snowballs, Buddy dives through the air in slow motion, whipping a sidearm shot 50 yards across an open field. Favreau captures the moment in all its glory, following the snowball across the field until it nails a kid in the back. Favreau also endows the North Pole with a cartoon-like quality, filling it with computer-generated, talking animals, in contrast to the live animals that Buddy finds in the outside world. This technique helps emphasize the idea that Buddy is an out-of-place cartoon character himself.

Despite a steady stream of silly yet laughable jokes, the script is disappointing in other respects. Mostly, the romance between Buddy and Jovie is hard to fathom, because Buddy has the mindset of a four year old child of indeterminate sex. Buddy is too ridiculous a character for a romantic relationship. But in forcing a love-interest, the script follows the formula of the feel-good, Christmas movie genre. Likewise, the storyline of the overworked businessman realizing that he’s lost sight of the important things in life with the help of some gentle soul is standard fare.

The saccharin-sweetness of Elf’s ending is a letdown. But you can’t expect anything different from a movie guided towards a children’s audience in the holiday season. Elf accomplishes what it sets out to do, and Will Ferrell is likeable throughout, backed by a more-than-competent supporting cast. Buddy the Elf is no “Hank the Tank,” but Will Ferrell proves he can carry a movie, even if that means toning himself down.

Archived article by geoff bakken