Elf (2003)

25 Apr

elf3711

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Movies with fish-out-of-water stories—sometimes they work, depending on the execution, central characters, and settings. Sometimes they don’t work. “Elf”—which features an elf who visits New York City on Christmastime—does work. It has a lovable main character, a pleasant setup, and a sense of holiday cheer.

The main reason “Elf” works so much is because of Will Ferrell’s performance as the lead character—a human named Buddy who thinks he’s an elf. Well actually, that’s the first ten minutes. For the entire movie, he realizes for the first time that he’s a human and sets out to find his real father. You see, Buddy was an orphan baby who crawled into Santa Claus’ bag and was accidentally brought back to the North Pole. There, he was adopted by Papa Elf and raised to live with the elves. This makes him several feet taller than the others, it’s difficult for him to create toys with the other elves, and he has to sleep in three small beds put together. He’s about 30 years old now and he doesn’t know that he’s indeed a human, not an elf. So he decides to go to New York City to find his birth father.

It turns out his birth father is an uptight publisher named Walter Hobbs who works in the Entire State Building, neglects his wife and pre-teen son, and is basically a Scrooge. He’s not thrilled about this strange man in an elf costume that seems to stalk him. But when Buddy mentions his college girlfriend (Buddy’s birth mother), Buddy is able to convince his father to let him live in his family’s apartment. He gets on Walter’s wife Emily’s good side, as well as the son named Michael who becomes Buddy’s best friend.

He also tours around the city to discover everything new to him and pays many visits to a department store, where he is able to spot out a fake Santa Claus in one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Also at the store is a beautiful worker named Jovie who eventually develops a relationship with Buddy.

A lot happens in “Elf,” which is just flat-out funny and very charming. And a lot rides on the performance of Will Ferrell as Buddy. Will Ferrell is absolutely amazing—he’s very likable, delightfully annoying, and so full of good cheer. This is not the Will Ferrell people were used to seeing on SNL. He’s also a great physical comedian in which he tries to blend in (or, forgive the pun, fit in) at Santa’s workshop, tries to figure out a mall escalator, or even wearing that ridiculous elf costume! He has a great personality that makes it impossible to dislike his character.

And then there’s the delightful (and much unexpected) supporting cast. We have James Caan as the Scrooge of a father, Mary Steenburgen as the sweet Emily (I really love how she gets used to the fact that Walter had a child out of wedlock and that the child is a full-grown man who thinks he’s an elf—and also, the way it seems strangely credible), and Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, the beautiful, fun love interest. Oh yeah, and Papa Elf is played by Bob Newhart, who narrates the story in deadpan delight—he’s wonderful here. We also get a nice cameo from Peter Dinklage as a business dwarf who doesn’t like being called “elf” (there’s also a nice cameo from “A Christmas Story” star Peter Billingsley as the head elf Ming Ming). What a cast there is!

If that’s not enough, the movie is well-made and fantastically-written. It was directed by actor Jon Favreau and written by David Berenbaum. We get walk-ons by the characters from the cheesy animated Christmas TV specials (including that snowman that still slides instead of walks and talks like a bluesman). And there are so many gags in which Buddy is in the city for the first time and checks out everything that it’s hard to stop laughing or even smiling. The whole movie is like that—laughs and smiles. The movie is full of in-jokes, surprises, and satire. Half of it is for kids and the other half is for parents. This is a great family entertainment.

If there is a problem with “Elf,” it’s that the ending feels somewhat rushed. It’s not the ending I would’ve gone with if I was in charge of production…then again, if I was in charge, I’m not sure I would make “Elf” as pleasant as it is by Jon Favreau and acted with a lovable, highly-charismatic persona by Will Ferrell.

NOTE: I have a confession to make—I was almost about to rate this movie three stars. But while I was writing this review, I quickly changed it to three-and-a-half stars. That’s how charming the movie was for me.

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