Rated PG - Running Time: 1:35 - Released 11/7/03

Will Ferrell, the recent Saturday Night Live graduate who could arguably be described as the most versatile cast member ever to appear on that show, has established a trend of brightening up the most stupid of movies, often salvaging what would otherwise be a worthless flop with his undeniably hilarious characterizations. The trend continues. Without Ferrell, Jon Favreau’s Elf would be a waste of money both for the producers and moviegoers, but as with last February’s Old School, it is Ferrell’s performance, and pretty much solely that, which makes this movie watchable. It’s not that Elf doesn’t have a talented cast—in fact, it’s rather surprising (and perhaps a telling commentary on Ferrell’s drawing power) that so many big name actors would sign onto this piece of fluff—but notable supporting performers James Caan, Edward Asner, Bob Newhart, and Mary Steenburgen, regardless of their talents, can’t help the fact that the story is unsophisticated and the dialogue uninspired.

Written by David Berenbaum (whose only other credit is Disney’s The Haunted Mansion, due out later this month), Elf tells the story of Buddy (Ferrell), an affable, friendly, possibly retarded human boy raised by Santa’s helpers in their North Pole workshop, who indeed thinks he’s one of them despite the fact that he towers over even the tallest of toymakers, including his adoptive elf father (Newhart). Finally, however, when it becomes clear that he lacks the toymaking talents of his peers, it is revealed that he is not in fact an elf at all, and Santa Claus (Asner) suggests that he travel to New York City to find his biological father, a children’s book publisher named Walter Hobbs (Caan) who works in the Empire State Building. So at 30 years old he leaves home and journeys to the Big Apple, where, with his irrepressibly cheerful attitude and childlike demeanor (not to mention his full-blown elf outfit), he draws the stares of passersby, marvels at Christmas tree lights, twirls around in revolving doors, and gets hit by taxicabs, finally arriving at his startled father’s office.

Having been completely unaware of Buddy’s existence, Walter is not only surprised to meet him but horrified that his grown son is some sort of delusional, cotton-eating man-child dressed in a pointy cap, green jacket, and yellow tights. He tries to brush him off, but finally takes him home to his wife Emily (Steenburgen) and son Michael (Daniel Tay), who are at first similarly flummoxed but come to like Buddy for his fun spirit and innocent attitude. But Buddy doesn’t really fit in there, nor does he make a very good impression on the boss at Gimbel’s, who thinks he’s part of the team working with the store’s Santa Claus. Although he spends all night making the store into a Christmas wonderland full of paper snowflakes, Lego skyscrapers, and “Welcome Santa” signs, trouble arises when he accuses the Santa stand-in (Artie Lange) of not being the real St. Nick, whom he, of course, knows personally. Despite all his troubles, however, he does make a friend in his grumpy, comely co-worker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), whose rediscovered Christmas spirit—thanks to Buddy—helps to save Christmas in the final, inevitable, we-must-save-Christmas plot device.

Ferrell plays this role as if he has the mental capacity of about a 4-year-old, which comes off mostly hilarious and only occasionally disturbing. Luckily he’s afforded the lion’s share of screen time by director Favreau, who can sense as well as we can that most of the plot involving the other characters is filler and the actors are not particularly interested in creating holiday magic so much as collecting their paychecks. Ed Asner plays Santa exactly like Lou Grant, Bob Newhart plays Papa Elf exactly like Bob Newhart (big surprise), and James Caan plays Walter exactly like he doesn’t want to be there.

All in all, Elf represents another new addition to the monumental list of undistinguished holiday movies replayed every year on television for the purpose of babysitting our kids while we’re upstairs wrapping their presents. In the vast continuum of Christmas films, with the really good ones at one end (Miracle On 34th St., It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story) and the really bad ones on the other (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Jingle All The Way), this film occupies a position at dead center. It’s innocuous, child-friendly fare with some truly enjoyable elements sprinkled into a healthy batch of Christmas mediocrity. Kinda like cinematic fruitcake. ***½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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