Slogging through a Will Ferrell comedy in which he plays a human being who’s been raised as an elf at the North Pole was not high on the list of things I wanted for myself for Christmas.
Imagine my surprise when I found that Elf was generally charming, often very funny and almost completely entertaining! Unlike a number of my critical comrades in arms, I’m not ready to brand the film an “instant Christmas classic,” and I still find Ferrell too obvious, too manic and just too full of Will Ferrell to be wholly palatable. But this odd little movie from Jon Favreau — director of the too infrequently seen Made — is certainly better than it initially looked. And, like Made, it manages to come across as what might be called “hip with a heart.”
Yes, it’s pretty darn predictable in terms of plot. Scratch that — it’s very predictable in terms of plot. Yet Elf is, after all, a Christmas movie aimed at a family market, so I’m not sure it’s necessary — or even germane — to criticize it on those grounds.
Ferrell plays Buddy, a foundling who ended up at the North Pole when he crawled into Santa’s bag at the orphanage. Taken to be raised by a childless elf (Bob Newhart), Buddy grows to an unelfly 6-foot-3, and has to be told the truth about his human origins, prompting him to go in search of his natural father (James Caan), who doesn’t even know of Buddy’s existence (the mother — an old girlfriend of the Caan character — never told him). Dad is understandably less-than-whelmed at finding himself in charge of this goofy, oddly garbed social embarrassment who seems to subsist solely on a diet of sugar products. Meanwhile, there are those people — including Caan’s wife (Mary Steenburgen) and other son (Daniel Tay, American Splendor), not to mention seemingly hard-shelled Gimbel’s Santaland elf-suited employee Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) — who, of course, see something in Buddy that the cynical Caan has to learn.
How it works out is far from mysterious. Favreau — with the aid of a truly great supporting cast, first-timer David Berenbaum’s script and John Debney’s intriguing mock-Sibelius/ersatz-Vaughan-Williams score — manages to make Elf off-the-beaten-reindeer-path enough to be surprising in other ways. The sense that this is all going to be a little different is established in the film’s opening credits, done in the style you might more reasonably expect from movie circa 1963, not 2003. And that, I think, is the key to the movie’s offbeat success — its unforced “retro” feel.
Though Elf takes place in the now, the present is — for all intents and purposes — edited out of the movie. Modern touches are kept to a bare minimum, while all the songs heard in the film hail from the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s. The soundtrack resonates with “Christmas” standards — and a splendid duet on Frank Loesser’s wintertime classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Zooey Deschanel and Ferrell. (Ferrell is OK, but Deschanel is so much more — who knew she could sing like this? — and gets to reprise the song with no less than Leon Redbone over the film’s ending credits.) Their number is played pretty much straight, and is allowed to exist on the merits of its own charms — it’s the kind of “meeting cute” mentality that used to come so effortlessly in movies, and that today usually seems forced and arch. The inclusion of Rankin-Bass-style animated characters — including a Leon Redbone-voiced Snowman (a clever variant on the Burl Ives one) and another character voiced by legendary animator Ray Harryhausen — handily recalls perennial TV specials like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. More importantly, these things aren’t approached either with undue reverence or a smug sense of superiority — only with the proper sense of fun. (One of the film’s biggest laughs comes from Ed Asner’s very crusty Santa advising against listening to the snowman’s concerns over travel.)
What Favreau gives us isn’t so much a pastiche of an earlier time, though, as it is a vision of a world that still exists within our own — if you just ignore extraneous factors. In a very subtle way, Elf kept reminding me of George C. Scott’s They Might Be Giants speech, where he postulates that modern man is all wrong, and that beauty is all around, but hard to find or overlooked (“The earth is shining under the soot”). Thankfully, Elf is never preachy (though it does get a little gooey), simply because in defining his own ideas of cool, Favreau is way too cool to preach.
My one genuine reservation lies in the very concept of Ferrell’s character — he’s supposed to have spent his life thinking he’s an elf, but since none of the other elves act like him, I can only suppose that Santa dropped him on his head somewhere along the way back to the North Pole. But this isn’t a movie that will bring out too much Scroogery on my part — if only because it’s not another Tim Allen Santa Clause opus, and since it ought to finally propel indie fave Deschanel (looking stunning here) to real stardom.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke