Starring-Will Ferrell, James Caan
Scott’s Review #846
Reviewed December 20, 2018
Elf (2003) is one of the few lasting Christmas hits of recent memory or at least one that many fans make a regular viewing experience each holiday season. The film is light and unarguably a safe, feel-good experience mixing a hopeful Christmas message with comic gags and romance. The key to its success is Will Ferrell who possesses wonderful comic timing. More wholesome than my tastes and lacking plausibility the film does succeed as a family friendly, ready-made, fun experience.
The story revolves around one of Santa’s elves (Ferrell) named Buddy who learns he is human and was orphaned as an infant. Revealed that his biological father Walter (James Caan) resides in New York City, Buddy embarks on a trip to find the man and spread Christmas cheer in a world filled with grizzled and cynical human beings. In predictable comic form Buddy has trouble adjusting to the human world and the fast-paced lifestyle with misunderstandings arising repeatedly. Buddy eventually wins over his father and family finding love with downtrodden Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).
Hot on the heels of his Saturday Night Live stint ending in 2002, Ferrell was primed to embark on a successful film career. Elf is a great role for him as it capitalizes on his comic timing and energy and the setup works. At 6’3″ who better to play an elf for laughs than a hulking middle-aged man? Due to his talents Ferrell makes the role of Buddy fun, appealing, and the highlight of the film. With a lesser talent the character would have been too annoying (as it is there are too many hug jokes) and the overall film would have suffered.
Other than Ferrell the supporting roles are nothing memorable other than Caan’s role. The once dashing star of films such as The Godfather (1972) Caan still has the charm and charisma to appeal, though the balding and dyed head of hair does nothing for him. A small role by television star Bob Newhart as Papa Elf is fine, but Deschanel’s role and Mary Steenburgen’s role as Emily, Walter’s wife, could have been played by many actresses and nothing is distinguishable about either part. Lesser roles like Walter’s secretary, Walter’s boss, and the Gimble’s store manager are stock parts with no character development.
A major high-point is the New York City setting and the exterior scenes are aplenty. Filmed in 2002 and released in 2003, the location shots were completed not long after 9/11 and showcasing a city with such recent decimation adds to the film’s appeal. Scenes in Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and the Empire State Building are prominently featured making the film festive and merry. What greater city is there at Christmastime than New York?
Elf remains an entertaining experience with enough shiny ornaments and fun moments in the department store and Walter’s office to hold interest. The luster wears thin at the conclusion as all the traditional elements come together. Jovie leads a chorus of strangers in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, Walter quits his job without concern for paying bills, and everyone happily rides off into a sparkling winter wonderland. This may satisfy some, but I wanted more conflict than a troupe of Central Park Rangers chasing Santa through the park.
A film that might be paired nicely with holiday favorites of similar ilk such as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) or Christmas with the Kranks (2004), Elf (2003) is an energetic affair with a charismatic lead actor. Containing silly moments, but a spirited and worthwhile message nestled nicely within, the film is worth a watch if in the mood for slapstick. More thought-provoking holiday films with deeper merriment and stronger flair exist, but for a chuckle or two Elf works well.