Elf (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Elf is being hailed in some quarters as the next great Christmas classic. The people making such a pronouncement must have seen a different cut of the movie than the one shown to me. Elf is a feather-light motion picture that embraces the Christmas spirit, but, in the process, forgets that it's trying to be a comedy. Maybe the problem is that Will Ferrell, as outrageous a comedian as there is, is neutered beyond his ability to be funny by the family friendly PG rating. Or maybe it's that the screenplay is pitched at a third grade level. Regardless, Elf is more likely to end up on the snow pile of forgettable Christmas-themed movies than in the vault of memorable ones.

There's a difference between family movies and kids' movies. Titles in the former category are typically well-rounded motion pictures that offer genuine entertainment value to viewers of all ages. Films in the latter group will entertain those whose age remains in the single digits while hopefully not making their parents wish they were somewhere else. Elf wants to be thought of as a family film, but the reality is that it's a kids' picture. The best age for viewers of Elf is about seven or eight. A lack of sophistication is important, as is a naiveté about story construction. There's barely enough here to keep an adult engaged, but children (especially those who celebrate Christmas) will inhale what the movie has to offer.

The premise is simple enough, and sounds like a decent basis for a Christmas carol. Buddy (Ferrell) is about twice the size of every other elf on Santa's staff. That's because he's not really an elf. He's a human orphan who was adopted by the Fat Man (Edward Asner) 30 years ago. Only now has his step-father (Bob Newhart) gotten around to telling him the truth. Armed with a picture of his biological dad (James Caan), Buddy heads to New York City. There, he discovers an unfamiliar culture, a man who doesn't want to acknowledge his existence, and a cute girl named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) who captures his heart. Then, when something goes amiss on Christmas Eve, he gets an opportunity to rescue Santa and save the holiday.

Ferrell has a few signature moments, but the screenplay was not written to his strengths. (As boorish as it is, a film that fills that role is Old School.) He is strangely muted, and, for the most part, not especially funny. The movie offers some chuckles, but very few moments that will shake the belly like a bowl full of jelly. The best scene (at least from a comedy perspective) only peripherally features Ferrell. That star of that sequence is a dwarf who happens to be the most popular writer of children's books. There's an edge to that part of the movie that is sadly missing from the rest of it.

The film opens with promise. Bob Newhart's deadpan narration is amusing, and it's an unexpected surprise to see a few animated creatures inspired by the cheesy-but-beloved Rankin-Bass Christmas TV specials ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," etc.). After the action moves to New York, however, moments of inspiration become scarce. We get a lot of recycled "fish out of water" jokes that would have been at home in Crocodile Dundee or Blast from the Past. James Caan gets to play a version of Scrooge. And the luminous (but underused) Zooey Deschanel provides a romantic interest. Things really start to fall apart when Santa is threatened by a group of marauders in Central Park.

The film's director is Jon Favreau, one of the original Swingers. This is his second outing behind the camera, following the limp Made. However, where that movie earned a deserved R from the MPAA, here Favreau is trying to make something of a kinder, gentler persuasion. To the extent that it's kid-friendly, he has succeeded. But the movie's appeal is limited, and, in the end, just about the only thing Elf has going for it is the time of year when it's being released. For those who are desperate to take their kids to a holiday-themed flick, pickings are slim, and that's probably the only reason Elf won't sink like a rock at the box office.

Elf (United States, 2003)

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay
Screenplay: David Berenbaum
Cinematography: Greg Gardiner
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2003-11-07
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1