(Originally reviewed in 2012)
Christmas movies are their own special brand of films. Much of what makes them good is centered on how well they tie into this wonderful holiday season. You can’t separate them from the holiday, and their success depends on that relationship to Christmas. Jon Favreau’s “Elf” is a perfect example. Soaked with Christmas lore, “Elf” captures the sentimental spirit of Christmas within its clever and often times hilarious story. “Elf” is inseparable from Christmas and your perception of the holiday will naturally impact your perception of this movie. That’s probably why I can forgive its few flaws and appreciate it as a true holiday treat.
Will Ferrell stars which can sometimes throw up a few red flags for me. Ferrell and this movies often follow a fairly overused formula where he plays someone in an absurdly out-of-place position (see movies such as “Semi-Pro” and “Blades of Glory”). But unlike those movies, it really works here. He plays Buddy the Elf, a toymaker at Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. How’s that for a wacky fit?
But there are several noticeable differences between Buddy and his fellow elves, none more glaring than the fact that he’s 6’5 and not very good at making toys. His father, Papa Elf (hilariously played by Bob Newhart, fully decked out in a bright elf costume with green tights) decides it’s time to reveal to Buddy that he’s really a human being. Feeling uncertainty about where he truly belongs, Buddy sets out on a journey to find his real father. His quest takes him to the magical world of New York City.
It’s here that the absurdity really kicks in. Buddy arrives in the Big Apple in full elf garb where his elf mentality immediately clashes with the concrete jungle. He comes face-to-face with many new and exotic things including New York cabbies, coffee shops, and the Lincoln Tunnel. It’s often hysterical watching Buddy’s elf sensibilities smash up against big city life. The fish-out-of-water script provides plenty of funny moments. Of course it gets a little sappy at the end, and the baked-in holiday cheer means the ending is fairly predictable. But that goes hand-in-hand with Christmas movies. You pretty much know what you’re going to get.
Then there’s the terrific and committed supporting performances. I especially love James Caan as Buddy’s real father, Walter Hobbs. He’s a shrewd children’s book publisher who spends more time at work than with his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and his young son (Daniel Tay). Then there’s Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, a Gimbel’s department store worker who catches Buddy’s eye. Much like Walter, she’s in desperate need of some Christmas spirit, something that Buddy has in spades. Ed Asner is a wonderful fit as Santa Claus, and Faizon Love has several great scenes as the Gimbels toy department manager.
“Elf” is utterly absurd and unashamedly silly and I say that as a compliment. Even if you aren’t a Will Ferrell fan, he’s an absolute blast in this fun and festive holiday treat. It may be handcuffed by its Christmas movie boundaries, and it certainly dips into sentimentality at the end. But it’s such a warm and clever film; one with plenty of good gags and family-friendly laughs. It may not be up everyone’s alley. But for many, it’s a film that has become one of the “must watch” movies of the Christmas season. That’s certainly the case at our house.