ELF is a film thats easy to like despite some shortcomings. Will Ferrell is seriously funny as a stranger in two very different strange lands, and its classic Christmas message of glad tidings and love all around is affecting while not falling into the sugar plum trap of terminal sappiness.
Our hero is Buddy (Ferrell), a human infant put up for adoption who somehow finds himself stowed away in Santas toy bag on Christmas Eve. Once discovered, hes adopted by a childless elf (Bob Newhart in all his deadpan, stuttering glory) and brought up as just another elf, albeit one whos over six feet tall. Buddy is a sweetie, but not, shall we say, the brightest bulb on the string of Christmas lights and so in thirty years hes never glommed onto the fact that theres something odd about him. Instead, he accidentally overhears the awful truth and then sets out to find his biological father, Walter (James Caan), in New York with only a snow globe of the New York skyline to guide him on his journey.
The film is at its best early on when we see Buddy and his elven pals making toys for Santa (avuncular Ed Asner). There is a tart humor to the proceedings, with savvy but kind elves dealing diplomatically with the jumbo doofus in their midst. Thus when Ferrell calls himself a cotton-headed ninnymuggins after failing to meet his Etch-a-Sketch© quota, both that and the pep talk hes given by his supervisor as hes moved into a job reserved for the special elves has a deeply sincere tongue-in-cheek quality that isnt cloying or self-consciously precious.
When Buddy hits the Big Apple sporting a big grin, yellow tights, and curly shoes, we come to a series of predictable set pieces, such as Buddy in traffic, Buddy on an escalator, Buddy in a police holding cell. Its elevated by Ferrells goofy innocence and gung-ho sense of the pratfall. He plays it without guile and so full of good humor that Buddy is a walking Christmas carol in the home of the Bronx cheer. His is the palpable earnestness and boundless enthusiasm elsewhere found only in toddlers, but without the concomitant issues of drooling and tantrums.
In Caan he has a good foil with an almost gentle twist to his characters hard-bitten cynicism, the latter being an unfortunate quality in a childrens book editor. After a DNA test to settle the paternity issue, he takes Buddy home to his semi-neglected but nurturing wife (Mary Steenburgen) and disaffected son (Daniel Tay) with more trepidation than affection. At this point you pretty much know whats going to happen, what with the father whos lost the Christmas spirit just before the holiday, and a son whos been raised by elves. Along the way Buddys mistaken for a pretend elf at Gimbels, wins over dubious co-worker Jovie, (the delightfully surly Zooey Deschanel), and displays an obsession for turning every space hes in into a winter wonderland with whatever tools are at hand.
Ferrell as the titular ELF elicits genuine belly laughs and my biggest complaint is that the script doesnt allow him more of them. There are, however, more than enough to warrant taking in ELF with a few caveats for the kiddies. Actually, their parents. Buddy has a predilection for pouring maple syrup on his spaghetti and meatballs, and for scarfing down cotton balls a quick snack food with no apparent ill effects, which may prompt a few discussions. As might a scene of Buddy becoming incensed when confronted with Gimbels Santa, a situation that involves beard pulling and lobbed Legos and the need for a whole lot of explanations about the difference between the real Santa and his seasonal helpers for those kiddies who still believe.
Even good performances cant wholly compensate for the hurried feel of last half. Buddys big date with Jovie is a jumped-up montage with neither wit nor charm, and the turning point for Walter is so rushed that there is no time for the emotional development needed to make it ring true even for this peppermint soufflé of a holiday fable. Perhaps screenwriter David Berenbaum was impatient to get to the inevitable happy ending and start planning the sequel.
ELF may not be perfect, but it will take care of the holiday blues. Its sincerely silly, but rarely stupid, and you cant beat Ferrell for his loopy take on the seasons magic.