‘Tis the season for Christmas movies, so I thought I’d get into the festive mood and check out this 2003 comedy with Will Ferrell.
At this point, Will Ferrell’s man-child comedy act feels way past its use-by date, but he’s absolute perfection in this early role, playing a 30-year-old human who was raised as an elf in Santa’s magical grotto at North Pole, after crawling into Santa’s bag as a tiny baby. Though Buddy is accepted by the rest of the elves, eventually Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) sits him down for a talk. Shocked to discover that he’s human, Buddy resolves to track down his biological dad in the concrete jungle of New York City, with only an Empire State Building snow globe to guide him.
Buddy’s father Walter Hobbs (James Caan) is, sadly, on Santa’s naughty list, a miserly workaholic who initially wants nothing to do with a tall, cheerful weirdo in yellow tights who claims to be his son. Real-life Manhattan at Christmas time, meanwhile, both delights and overwhelms Buddy. Among other things, he scores a job in a toy store and falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a quirky fellow employee who looks cute as a button in an elf costume and shares his “affinity for elf culture”.
But navigating the world of humans and new familial and romantic relationships is not the end of Buddy’s challenges. There’s also a decades-long energy crisis that had left Santa’s sleigh running on *gasp* artificial mechanical engine, rather than all-natural belief. Can Buddy help out the big man in red coat, and save Christmas?
It must be said that plotting is not one of the movie’s strengths; it’s essentially a collection of comic set-pieces loosely strung together. They’re mostly effective and amusing, but as a result of this episodic nature, some of the emotional pay-offs, especially Walter’s eventual change of heart, don’t work anywhere near as well as intended. But though it’s not a perfect film, Elf more than compensates for its flaws with charm, humour, some memorable lines, wonderful casting (including a hilarious cameo from Peter Dinklage) and innocent, good-natured spirit of it all. I also loved the quaint old-school set design and stop-motion animation used to portray Santa’s North Pole, without the frenetic action and CGI overkill of some other family Christmas movies.
As played by Will Ferrell, Buddy is an instant charmer, remarkably so considering that his hyperactive, insanely peppy character could have easily fallen into an icky and/or super annoying territory. The idea of a 6’3″ man being raised as an elf is inherently hilarious, and Ferrell gets to display his gift for pure physical comedy (I confess, few things can make me laugh as hard as a well-executed pratfall), but I also admired his fearless, all-in commitment to playing a genuinely innocent, childlike soul. We could all use some of Buddy’s boundless optimism and knack for finding joy in simple everyday things.
P.S. As a far less serious nitpick, the film can’t make up its mind on whether Santa needs to be seen to be believed or not. I demand philosophical consistency in my Christmas movies!