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Review: “Elf”

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Produced by: Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki, Shauna Robertson
Written by: David  Berenbaum
Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner, Daniel Tay, Amy Sedaris
Music by: John Debney
Year: 2003

The 21st century hasn’t been kind to the Christmas genre. The signs were there from the very near-beginning when in late 2000 (which is not the 21st century) Ron Howard delivered his misguided attempt to make a live action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Brett Ratner’s pale imitation of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Nicolas Cage-starring The Family Man, and on from there we got the endless barage of cynical actor cash-ins like Christmas with the Cranks, Deck the Halls, Fred Claus, and the terrible sequels to The Santa Clause. Perhaps the worst of these was Surviving Christmas, a miserable, annoying, and rage-inducing film starring Ben Affleck making a nuisance of himself to James Gandolfini.

Sure, there were a few good films here and there, but most of the recent Christmas films could be justifiably criticized as being as commercial as the holiday they purport to extol the virtues of. Where were the all time, gotta-watch-each-Christmas classics that we got in decades past? Sure, they had their share of proverbial lumps of coal, too, but surely we weren’t looking upon them with frozen-eyed nostalgia, right? Are we doomed to never again have a Christmas classic?

Well, of course not! Because amid all the naughty films came this wonderful, good little film called Elf, and even though it seemed like it tried to just cash-in on the latest craze (Will Ferrell), somehow, the little film shined brightly through the darkness and saved Christmas for all the good little boys and girls! The plot and world of Elf is appropriately whimsical (the North Pole is filled with talking animals and snowmen animated in claymation, for example) and, unlike most Will Ferrell films, it’s pretty much 100% totally appropriate for the family to watch together, too!

Ferrell plays Buddy, an elf who’s not quite so similar to all the other elves around him. When Buddy realizes that he’s a terrible toy maker, for example, he’s sent to product testing, but he’s not very good at this, either. And so Buddy’s father, appropriately called Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), reveals to the hilariously enormous Buddy that he was actually an orphan human who had accidentally been brought up to the North Pole in Santa’s bag of toys as a baby.

His biological father, Walter (James Caan), lives in New York as a children’s book publisher, but, to Buddy’s horror, Walter is on the naughty list! Like many adopted children, Buddy loves his adopted father, but he wants to meet his real father, who wasn’t even aware that he had a grown son in the first place. And so he goes out to meet Walter and, hopefully, help him get off the naughty list by spreading a little Christmas cheer to everyone.

I have to say, Elf quickly became one of my all time favorite Christmas movies right after I saw it. I really like Will Ferrell, even in dull films like Everything Must Go, but for a while there he really seemed to be burning out his whole comedy shtick. Not here. This came before all that, and Ferrell was the perfect choice to play the gleeful, childlike role of Buddy the Elf.

The character goes up there with Ron Burgundy and Gene Frenkle (the cowbell guy) as one of the defining roles of Ferrell’s career. You can’t help but smile as he exposes a mall Santa as a fraud (“You sit on a throne of lies!” “You smell like beef and cheese, you don’t smell like Santa!”), covers everything in syrup and other sugary treats (“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”), and explains why he smiles all the time (“I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite!”). Ferrell captures the childlike spirit of Christmas that every other Christmas film attempts and usually fails to portray and actually nails both the spirit and the childlike qualities so perfectly that any flaws in the film (and there are some, but not too many) are easily overlooked as you get caught up in his joyfulness.

The rest of the cast are also quite good, even if most of them are left to merely react to Ferrell. Bob Newhart foregoes the cantankerous or “hip” old man personality and just goes for weathered but sweet-natured as Papa Elf, who also provides the film’s narration.

James Caan plays the opposite of sweet-natured as the profit-focused, crabby Walter whose only reasoning for letting Buddy into his life is that it was his only tie to a long lost love of his. By the end of the film, you get a sense that he’s still a work in progress, but the spirit Buddy helped place in his heart has definitely started to settle in, which is a nice change from the usual 180 turn.

Zooey Deschanel, looking nearly unrecognizable as a blonde, plays cute but lonely as the department store girl who would fall for Buddy’s exuberant personality (one might wonder if he would propose with friendship bracelets or candy jewelry rather than diamond rings…), while Mary Steenburgen brings a lot of her own typical sweetness as Walter’s incredibly understanding and accepting wife and the mother of Buddy’s tag-along half-brother, Michael. The scene where Buddy makes her a breakfast of syrup-smothered spaghetti is hilariously straight-faced.

If there really is any flaw, it’s the rather by-the-numbers end, where Christmas spirit saves the day. You’d expect it in this kind of film, but somehow it just loses a bit of steam. Maybe it’s that the film had so many genuine laughs up til that point that its attempt to switch gears and be so earnest about Christmas cheer that the whole climax felt a just a little trite…

But that’s hardly enough to destroy the film as a 21st century Christmas classic. And while it may not be as technically great as other films in this category, it is, in my opinion, right up there with A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life as necessary viewing this time of year. Don’t be a cotton-headed ninny-muggins! Go out now and watch Elf with your family and friends!

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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