Yes, Virginia, there is a reason to see Will Ferrell’s new film. At least so long as you’ve got a preteen in tow.
Directed by the multitalented Jon Favreau, “Elf” tells the teasingly wacked out story of a human boy named Buddy who’s raised in the North Pole by the staff of Santa’s Workshop. As a baby, Ferrell’s character crawls into Saint Nick’s big bag as he makes the rounds at the orphanage where Buddy lives. Discovered back at Yule Central, the tyke’s taken under the wing of head elf Bob Newhart. The well meaning kid does his darndest to fit in but, the older he gets, the clearer it becomes he’s not really one of the pointy hatted gang. To everyone, that is, but him.
Ferrell wears his tights 24/7, struggles to make as many toys as his peers, embraces the elf way of life and is filled almost to the bursting point with Christmas spirit so he’s crushed to learn he’s actually human and has a real father in a far off land called New York. After a fond farewell to Newhart, he sets off to find his true place in the world.
Which, based on all that happens in the course of the next hour, would appear to be anyplace but the Big Apple. Some of the movie’s most effective comic moments arise from the high concept contrast between Buddy’s childlike sweetness and the, well, New Yorkerness of nearly everyone else in New York. James Caan is an inspired choice for the role of Ferrell’s long lost dad. A cynical, corner cutting publisher, he’s an antisanta of a workaholic grinch who doesn’t exactly go out of his way to welcome the fruit loop of his loins.
Buddy is undeterrable, however, in his mission to win his father’s love and just generally spread the joy. He finds work-where else-in the toy department at Gimbel’s and, little by little, chips away at Caan’s icy veneer. In the process, the SNL alum presides over a distillation of every Christmas picture and television special ever made. He’s as wistful an outsider as Charlie Brown. Caan couldn’t be a bigger scrooge if the nameplate on his desk read bah humbug. The film is infused with a Miracle on 34th Street-style insistence on the magic at the heart of the season. Newhart’s narration of the tale evokes Jimmy Durante’s of “Frosty the Snowman” and everything from the art direction and costumes to the surreal sets and misfit theme pays homage to 60s Rankin-Bass stop-motion productions like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
While the picture doesn’t rise to the level of instant holiday classic, younger members of the audience are guaranteed to get a Christmas kick out of it. If disappointment awaits, it awaits Ferrell’s older fans (to whom the movie largely was pitched), admirers who are likely to appreciate the craftsmanship of his performance but wish the comedian had gotten a little crazier. He makes an amusing enough manchild and appears to improvise some of the film’s funniest lines. All the same, it’s hard not to wonder how differently things might have turned out had, say, Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler been wearing those tights.
Don’t get me wrong. Favreau’s movie has plenty to recommend it. Early on, it’s stylish, the North Pole sets are as loopily beautiful as anything in the work of Tim Burton, Ferrell does the best boy-in-a-man’s-body act since Big and the casting of Ed Asner as Santa Claus is a fairly hilarious joke in itself.
The truth is we might have wound up with something on the timeless side here had more decisions been made with similar demento flair and had David Berenbaum’s script been less aggressively holiday generic. My guess is viewer reaction will tend to be split pretty much down the middle:
Kids will think it’s a holly jolly hoot. Most parents will find it a little ho ho hum.
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