While sufficiently funny, charming and clever, Elf is no modern Christmas classic. It’s worth another look every other holiday or so, but not every year.
But Will Ferrell-haters and people who just don’t get him should face it: Elf will make Ferrell a bona fide star — and for good reason.
He’s as adept at sweet as he is at rude, the mere sight of him in the yellow-and-green elf suit is good for a laugh, and his senses are so completely tuned into the character, it’s scary. “In tune,” however, is a kind phrase for an actor who can shove spaghetti mixed with maple syrup and Pop-Tarts so gleefully into his mouth. The movie, nevertheless, turns its back on its best special effect for computer-generated trickery in the third act.
Elf‘s weakest link is not the heartwarming Christmas cheer of that act, but the totally implausible bah-humbugs of the Scrooge-like character played by James Caan. It’s great casting, and Caan can pull off a strange sort of sentiment. But this script forces too many unreasonably grumpy moments on him.
Buddy (Ferrell) is a baby raised by elves as an elf after he crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas Eve. Upon becoming an adult, Buddy learns he is not an elf, and neither is Papa Elf (Bob Newhart, less low-key than boring in this role) actually his father.
That parent would be Walter Hobbs (Caan), a curmudgeonly publisher of children’s books who fathered Buddy unknowingly with a long-ago college love. In hopes of meeting Walter, Buddy journeys on foot from the North Pole to New York, where his naivete is mistaken for madness.
Initially cast off by Walter, Buddy finds temporary work as a department-store elf and romance with a cynical cohort played by Zooey Deschanel. With no-nonsense skepticism, Deschanel throws out zingers like the anti-Reese Witherspoon. Her finely featured singing voice is an added bonus.
Eventually, Walter takes Buddy in to live with him, his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and young son (Daniel Tay). As Buddy learns the rough ropes of Walter’s business, there is the problem of diminished Christmas spirit to contend with. Without it, Santa’s sleigh can’t fly, setting up the film’s third act, in which Buddy — you guessed it — must save Christmas.
The intentionally fake sets and stop-motion animation are director Jon Favreau’s homage to the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. But it is fleeting, aging-hipster lip service, paid for no good reason. Every bit in the North Pole is weak. Elves adapt ESPN-speak in calling toy-making “the big show” and grouse about middle-management concerns with Etch-a-Sketch quotas.
Ferrell forces the film to come alive when he hits the department store, giving every single one of those scenes undeniable comic punch. And the film has a strong theme and heart. Buddy’s weaknesses as an elf come in handier in the real world, and his love for Walter feels genuine.
But Walter is such a coldhearted penny-pincher that he leaves the resolution out of a book to save some cash. Yeah, right. And his actions at the end, though setting up a marvelous special-effects shot, make no sense. After what he’s seen, there’s no way he would not be singing at that moment. Because Elf is otherwise worth seeing, you’ll understand what that means.