Mark Reviews Movies

ELF

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay, Edward Asner

MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor and language)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 11/7/03


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I must first point out that I am not a fan of Will Farrell's work. Typically, he stands out awkwardly from the material presented him. He works way too hard for laughs, and that's one of the least funny things a comic actor can do. With Elf, Farrell has either grown exponentially as a comic actor very quickly, or this is simply a rare exception. Only time will tell, but I suppose I should appreciate it while it lasts. Elf is a sweet and sincere holiday tale about a perennial fish out of water, and Farrell's performance follows in suit. The film and its central character are endearing for their total innocence. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter David Berenbaum have created a charming family film and never fall into the trap of falling back on overly obnoxious humor. I'm actually surprised at how completely innocuous the film is, and I mean that in the best possible way. After a slew of movies aimed at kids that play to the lowest common denominator, it's almost a thrill to have one come around that thinks better of its audience and that I found myself enjoying without regret.

One Christmas years ago, a baby crawled out of his crib at a convent and into Santa's (Edward Asner) bag. Upon arriving at the North Pole and discovering the tyke, Santa gives the baby to a childless elf (Bob Newhart) to raise as his own. The years have passed, and Buddy (Farrell) has been under the impression that he himself was an elf too, although whispers around Santa's toy factory have begun to make him question his origins. After all, he doesn't build toys anywhere near as quickly as the other workers, and he is a lot taller than any of them. Papa Elf breaks the news the Buddy and gives him a photograph of his biological parents. His father Walter (James Caan) lives in New York and publishes children's books, but much to Buddy's horror, his father is on Santa's naughty list. It's time for Buddy to seek out his roots and make an effort to start his father on the right foot by spreading as much Christmas spirit as he can afford, which just happens to be a lot.

Even though the film spends most of its time in New York, the tone is set in its early scenes at the North Pole. It's actually a pretty interesting concept, with giant snowflakes, stop-motion animated characters (like the ones in those old television specials), and a hypnotically blue sky, that turns the North Pole into a surreal dreamscape. It's an important first step to this fish out of water story, because once Buddy makes his entrance into the city through the Lincoln Tunnel, it's all the more of a contrast to his previous surroundings, making his wonderment with his new environment felt a bit more on our part as well. The humor comes mostly from Buddy's odd customs (maple syrup on everything), and it is successful on the most part. What really makes the film endearing, though, is its heart. There's an incredibly sweet romance that develops between Buddy and a department store employee named Jovie (the very fetching Zooey Deschanel), which is briefly developed (she warms up to him and loses her cynical shell) but still works. The relationship between Buddy and his younger half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay) seems to progress naturally as well, as all it takes is for Buddy to impress his sibling in an all-out snowball fight.

The way Berenbaum handles the father and his relationship with Buddy have hints of depth, but they end up unfortunately never being resolved effectively. Walter's redemption at the end seems to come out of nowhere, with only small pieces (a scene in which he pines over the picture of himself and Buddy's mother during happier times) lying around and never coming together. The resolution comes off feeling more obligatory than anything else. In fact, the entirety of the last act is rushed. Everything needs to be resolved quickly, and loose threads are tied together even if they're not ready to be yet. The performances are solid all around, helping to keep the rougher spots together. Farrell leads the pack with his childlike enthusiasm, amazement. He never seems to be going for laughs but instead lets them come naturally from his character. James Caan makes an admirable straightman to Farrell's antics, and other supporting roles are nicely assembled, especially Mary Steenburgen as Buddy's new stepmother, Peter Dinklage as an overly demanding children's book author, and Edward Asner as Santa.

Elf is a highly pleasant holiday film that isn't afraid to respect its younger audience or to expect a little childlike glee from its older audience. It's a step in the right direction for Will Farrell, who I certainly hope continues to make smart performance decisions like this in the future. And it gives us one of the funnier images in a few years: Bob Newhart in an elf outfit.

Copyright 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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