Robin Clifford Laura Clifford
Santa Claus (Edward Asner) is making his rounds, as usual, on Christmas Eve and one of his stops is a small orphanage. One of the babies crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is accidentally taken all the way to the North Pole. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) adopts the boy and, years later, it is obvious that Buddy, so he is named, is not exactly made of elf material. He’s three times the size of everyone else and Santa realizes that he must go back to whence he came – New York City. Buddy sets off to find himself and, most importantly, his long lost father in “Elf.”
Comic actor Will Ferrel has always shown a talent for creating original and funny characters, whether during his seven year stint on Saturday Night Live or as the hallucinatory Christ figure in “Superstar” with Molly Shannon. Now, he is center stage as the 6+ foot tall “elf” named Buddy who, all grown up but innocent, is told the truth by his Papa. Buddy’s mother died not long after giving birth to her son and never told the boy’s father that he is, well, a father. Santa understands that it is necessary that Buddy find himself and his family and sends him off to New York with the name of his long lost father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), and where he works, the Empire State building. But, Santa also gives him some disturbing news – Walter is, Santa says, on the Naughty List.
Thus warned, Buddy sets off on his journey of wonder that takes him to places like the Candy Cane Forest and the Gumdrop River and, finally, to the Lincoln Tunnel. Clad in his fir-trimmed elf suit and with the innocence of a child, Buddy tries to see his father but is roughly thrown out of his building. But, the boy is insistent and he eventually wears his workaholic father down. Walter has DNA tests done and, much to his chagrin, Buddy proves right, he is the elf’s father. When he meets Walter’s wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), she is a bit shocked at first but immediately brings Buddy into the family. Not so his half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay) who thinks Buddy is a freak.
The ever-buoyant Buddy keeps working on Michael but is resisted every step of the way. That is until the day they walk through Central Park and a group of bullies begin to pummel the pair with snowballs. Now, if anybody knows snow it is Buddy and he soon turns the tables with his snowball fighting skills. Michael’s opinion of his brother is completely turned around.
The Hobbs family is made whole but there is a much more serious problem that needs to be taken care of ASAP. The Christmas Spirit in the world is fading and even Santa is forced to use a rocket pack on his sleigh. There simply is not enough of the magical Yuletide spirit to get his eight reindeer to fly unaided. It is up to Buddy, and his new friend, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a department store holiday elf at Gimbels, to find that old spirit, rekindle it and save Christmas.
Ferrel has an innocence and wonder about his character, and the ability to play a child in a man’s body, that reminds me of Tom Hanks in “Big.” Buddy has the heart of a six-year old and believes that the world is a wonderful place where problems are just adventures to be had. Will Ferrel gives a physically funny performance as Buddy insinuates himself into the Hobbs family and changes everyone around him – for the better. The actor is the anchor for “Elf” and Ferrel gives a star turn as the naïf, Buddy.
The supporting cast gives the limelight to Ferrel, who is in every scene, but helps to flesh out the surroundings. James Caan is appropriately cynical as the insincere publisher of children’s books – his latest tome was shipped with the last two pages missing but Walter doesn’t think anyone will notice. He needs a dose of Christmas cheer and it is up to his long lost son to provide it. Mary Steenburgen is sweet and kind as Emily Hobbs and is the spark that brings Buddy into her family. Ed Asner gives a gruff, rather than cuddly, performance as Santa. His is a different spin on Saint Nick but one that mostly works in an oddball way. Bob Newhart, as the film’s narrator and Buddy’s adoptive father, also lends character to his performance.
Director Jon Favreau has all the right ingredients to make “Elf” a popular holiday classic and, with Ferrel’s able assistance, might just do it. This is a movie about hope and belief in what is good in people and may just help restore some of the lost Christmas Spirit in this fast-paced world. It tells us to slow down, smell the flowers, make snow angels and have fun. I give it a B+.
On Christmas Eve, an orphanage baby, attracted by a teddy bear peaking out from Santa's sack, crawls into the bag while Santa (Ed Asner, "The Animal") is distracted by milk and cookies. Back at the North Pole, an old bachelor elf volunteers to adopt the human, but years later, when Buddy (Will Ferrell, "Old School") clearly does not fit into the toy shop world, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart, "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde") must break the news to the boy that he is a human, not an "Elf."
Will Ferrell can stand next to the likes of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler after proving here that he can shoulder a comedy. "Elf" is but a hairs' breadth away from becoming a Christmas classic, largely due to Ferrell's ferocious comedic instincts.
The tale begins with an amusing monologue from Newhart, detailing the three jobs fit for an elf (making shoes while cobblers sleep at night, the hazardous calling of baking cookies in trees and making toys for Santa). But Buddy is about three times the size of elves and he cannot keep up with their rigorous quotas for producing Etch-a-Sketches. Told that his real father, Walter Hobbs(James Caan, "Mickey Blue Eyes"), lives in New York City, Buddy sets out on a journey through candy cane forests towards the Big Apple.
Dad, who happens to be on Santa's naughty list, is an underhanded publisher of children's books who quickly makes Buddy Enemy #1 with his building's security officers, but after a short stint working in Gimbel's 'North Pole' (Buddy's fired for battling a 'fake' Santa, but not before beginning a sweet romance with Gimbel elf Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, "All the Real Girls")), Walter's wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen, "Casas de los Babys") decides Buddy should stay with them. The elf-raised Buddy has trouble adjusting to the human world, wrecking havoc in dad's place of work as well as the Hobbs' household, but when Santa's sleigh stalls out in Central Park due to a lack of Christmas spirit, Buddy's there to save the day...er.. eve.
Will Ferrell gives a hilarious yet sweet reading of the man who would be elf. Sent from Santa's assembly line to testing, Ferrell is surprised anew with each appearance of the jack-in-the-box and makes us laugh each and every time. The innocence he gives lines like 'I'm a cotton-headed ninny muggins' is both funny and endearing. Ferrell's physical timing is such that he somehow makes getting hit by a cab funny long after we've gotten used to seeing him in the streets of New York City in a silly green costume and his first experience with an escalator is priceless. I was still laughing into the next scene after Buddy answers his dad's office phone with 'Buddy the Elf - what's your favorite color?' Wouldn't it be just great if the Academy loosened up this year and recognized Ferrell's fine work with a nomination?
Ferrell is well supported, particularly by the luminous Deschanel who treats us to her fine singing voice not once, but twice. Unfortunately, the romantic subplot, as written by David Berenbaum (Disney’s upcoming "The Haunted Mansion"), strains credulity. James Caan is all impatient, New York bluster, neatly counterpointed by Asner's slightly crusty Santa ('Oh no, it's the Central Park Rangers' is a line Asner makes funnier that one would imagine). Steenburgen's brand of blurry sweetness is perfect for Walter's well-meaning wife Emily and Daniel Tay ("American Splendor") does a nice job of rejecting, then accepting his oversized stepbrother. In smaller roles, Faizon Love ("Wonderland") spins paranoia into his harried Gimbel's department manager and Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent") does not appear as an elf.
Director Jon Favreau ("Made") hides the cliches in Berenbaum's script by playing up its eccentricities (Buddy's love of maple syrup is worked in a scene that may be homage to Dan Aykroyd's drunken Santa gross-out salmon bit in "Trading Places"). The forced perspective work used to make Ferrell bigger than Papa Elf Newhart is direly obvious, though, and production designer Rusty Smith's ("Austin Powers in Goldmember") North Pole is cheesy looking. That said, the tip of the hat to the 1964 Bass/Rankin television production of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with it's stop-motion animated animal characters and Leon, a snowman descendant of Burl Ives' Sam, is cunning. Mr. Narwhal's farewell to Buddy underlines the character's childlike nature. This is offset by the modern, more seamless effects used to show Santa's reindeer-powered sleigh flying about central Manhattan. There's something comforting about seeing such an old-fashioned image between two towering New York City buildings.
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