Elf (2003) / Comedy-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for mild rude humor and language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Daniel Tay, Edward Asner, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: David Berenbaum
Review published November 10, 2003
Comedian Will Ferrell (Old School, A Night at the Roxbury) and director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Made) have done funny work in comedies that are more adult, mean-spirited, and on many occasions, vulgar. Expectations for their Christmas comedy, Elf, would lead you to think this might be a funny but crass story, probably too reliant on crudeness to get its laughs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While Elf does have a couple of belching gags, and an instance of flatulence, the predominant charms are almost completely innocent, but in many ways, just as funny.
Although Ferrell doesn't cut loose as much as he is known to here, his delivery is still perfect for the role, showing a sweetness and naivety you've never seen before. As a baby orphan, he accidentally ends up crawling into Santa's bag of toys and taken to the North Pole, where he is adopted by Santa and the rest of the elves. For all of his life, Buddy (as he has been named) lives as an elf, despite the fact that he is twice as tall and only a tenth as talented when it comes to making toys. He is crushed when he overhears that he is not an elf, but a human, and when he learns his biological father lives in New York City, Buddy makes the long trek to find his roots. Life isn't easy for an innocent-eyed elf in the land of cynics and rude people, and Buddy's father refuses to believe he is anything but insane. Buddy does adapt, in a way, but the only thing he really craves is his father's ever elusive love.
It's a funny ride most of the way, and while it is at heart a one-joke premise, it milks its simple idea for as much as it's worth. The best quality of Elf is in the silly, and often endearing, performance by Ferrell, who carries the entire movie on his own comedic abilities. Also quite impressive is Favreau's direction, perfectly in tune with Ferrell's style, and also handling a family adventure with a sure hand. It's a very standard fish-out-of-water tale, but lifted into a better film through genuine charm.
Things begin to sag a bit in the sappy Christmas ending, which tries to pull off old-fashioned schmaltz without even a trace of a smirk. It cashes in the comedy chips for a shot at becoming a holiday classic, and only time will tell whether Favreau has succeeded. Still, Elf is a better Christmas film than most in recent years, and so earnest in its attempt to deliver a good-natured story, it's almost impossible to dislike.
©2003 Vince Leo