Plot: After sneaking into Santa’s sack at an orphanage, a human child is raised as an elf at the North Pole. Buddy (Will Ferrell) was an odd elf, so much taller and less magical than his peers, but he loved Christmas and tried his best to fit in, which often led to less than ideal results. When he overhears that he is a human, not an elf, he learns that his real mother has died, but his real father is alive and well, though he is on the naughty list. He was given up for adoption, but he is certain that his dad will embrace him now, so he sets out for a warm reunion. As it turns out, his father Walter (James Caan) hasn’t been soften by age and is a rather cold, business oriented man. He works long hours, but cuts corners when possible to save a few bucks, even if it means a few missing pages in a children’s book. Buddy tries to warm up his dad’s heart, but with little success, though he wins over Walter’s wife and son. Meanwhile, Buddy also tries to bring the Christmas spirit to all of New York City, though most people are confused by him or think he is insane. Can Buddy somehow restore the holiday cheer for an entire city and win his father’s love, all while riding a massive sugar high?
Entertainment Value: An instant holiday classic, Elf features a fun, warm story and a lead role tailor made for Will Ferrell, who makes the most of what will likely be his signature performance. The movie is able to combine heart with slapstick humor, with just the right over the top level of holiday spice, so it is no wonder Elf became so beloved, so fast. The story is one that feels familiar, but also has a fresh texture, so it never feels as simplistic as the premise suggests. In essence, the movie combines fish out of water, odd couple, and awkward romance dynamics, with a massive helping of humor and even some mostly effective emotional schmaltz. I think the movie’s warmness comes from how even those emotional beats pack a humorous punch, so it doesn’t feel as forced as it could have. The writing is rock solid, with some terrific bursts of humor that range from slapstick physical gags to outlandish moments to silly, but hilarious dialogue, a great blend of comedic styles. Some of the humor lands a little flat or is overused, but by the same token, some it hits big and especially the dialogue tends to fire on all cylinders at times. Of course, humor is never universal, so if you’re only into refined, more cerebral type laughs, you’re out of luck here. This is more immature, silly kind of stuff, but as I said, it does have genuine heart.
As solid as the premise and script are, the real reason Elf hits the right notes is Will Ferrell, who turns in the performance of his career here. Not his best performance, at least in my opinion, but this is likely to be the definitive role of his career and with good reason, as he really shines here. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role, as it suits his big hearted, naive minded style to perfection. His interactions with the entire cast lead to great laughs, in both the elf and human worlds. As always with Ferrell, he’s this kind of awkward, always out of place person who stumbles around, but you can’t but cheer him on. And given the amount of childlike wonder this role calls for, it was a match made in heaven. His scene with Peter Dinklage is a wild and memorable one, but he plays off the entire cast quite well, I think. James Caan is fun as the stern, all business Walter, while Zooey Deschanel turns her charm to eleven as Buddy’s love interest, showing immense screen presence. This one also has Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, Artie Lange, and a host of others involved, so it boasts a deep cast. But despite all the big names and talents involved, Elf is Will Ferrell’s movie and he carries it with ease, just a terrific performance. So if you’re a fan of Ferrell, Christmas, or light comedies, Elf should be in your collection.