Elf Movie Review

After years of specializing in playing obnoxiously oblivious nitwits, "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Ferrell has finally hit upon a role perfectly tuned to his niche talent -- an obnoxiously oblivious nitwit who, after crawling into Santa's toy bag as a baby one Christmas, grew up at the North Pole thinking he's one of the toy-making elves.

Buddy the elf's inherent kindheartedness and selfless good intentions are the saving-grace elements that Ferrell's performances have always been missing, and even though I've always had a hard time stomaching the guy, I have to admit, I loved him in "Elf."

A rare Christmas comedy that is somehow both astringently droll and full of family-friendly holiday spirit, the story begins at the North Pole where the time has come for buddy's adoptive father (the understatedly ironic Bob Newhart, also the film's storytime-style narrator) to sit the clueless and comparatively colossal 36-year-old on his lap and explain why he's three feet taller than his peers and "the only baritone in the elf choir."

Realizing he's been a "cotton-headed ninnie-muggins" (the apparent swear word draws a shocked gasp from the other elves), Buddy takes a little advice about the human world ("If you see gum on the street, don't pick it up! It's not free candy."), says goodbye to a snowman pal (a tongue-in-cheek homage to stop-motion animated TV Christmas specials) and sets out to find his real father -- a chintzy, contemptuous Manhattan children's books publisher (the amusingly derisive James Caan) who, much to Buddy's wide-eyed dismay, is on Santa's "naughty list."

Ferrell's native ability to shut off any hint of self-awareness and play this character's enthusiastic naiveté with endearing authenticity helps "Elf" overcome some absurd plot devices as Buddy blunders through the Big Apple after inevitably being thrown out of his skeptical father's office. Then, naturally drawn to the Christmas section of a department store, he makes a scene by belligerently outing the Santa-suited guy hearing children's wish lists and gets arrested. (The real Santa is played by Ed Asner with an amusing touch of grandfatherly crustiness.)

When Dad begrudgingly posts Buddy's bail and takes him home, more havoc ensues. ("We can't just throw him out in the snow," wife Mary Steenburgen insists after one disaster. "Why not?" says Caan. "He loves the snow.") But Buddy has a way of wearing down people's resistance, which also comes in handy back at the department store, where he returns to infuse a pretty but cynical Santa's helper (Zooey Deschanel) with some needed seasonal cheer.

Directed by Jon Favreau (best known as the writer and star of "Swingers"), "Elf" strikes a nimble balance between its kid-conscious sensibilities and its snarky sense of humor, often finding common ground in Ferrell's willingness to do anything for a laugh. No matter how old you are, it's blissfully bewildering to watch him devour Buddy's breakfast: a bowl of leftover spaghetti, M&Ms, marshmallows, Pop Tarts, chocolate sauce and syrup.

But the movie's seemingly obligatory subplot, about a shortage of Christmas spirit causing a power crisis onboard Santa's sleigh, never quite takes off -- even when the sleigh itself finally does. Favreau doesn't have a firm enough grip on that spirit to build it to a proper crescendo, leaving the film's contrived Santa-vs.-NYPD climax feeling flat as Buddy and the girl unconvincingly rally Caan and other sardonic New Yorkers into a sing-along.

Even with this significant shortcoming, "Elf" may have the goods to become a perennial favorite. I'd watch it again, and after all, I'm the guy who can't stand Will Ferrell.


Comments

Elf Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG, WIDE: Friday, November 7, 2003

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