WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: When Buddy the Elf finds out that he’s really a human put up for adoption as an infant, he leaves the safety of the North Pole for the rough and tumble of New York to find his unknowing father, Walter. Buddy finds friends and enemies aplenty in the Big Apple but the one thing he desperately wants – his Dad’s approval – is harder to come by.
Buddy (Will Ferrell) isn’t like the other elves. For one thing, he doesn’t possess the nimble fingers that the others in Santa’s workshop use to churn out toys for Christmas; for another, he’s about two feet taller than them, even his own father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). Still, Buddy is blissfully unaware that he’s a human who crawled into Santa’s sack as a baby, until events force Papa Elf to spill the beans and reveal that Buddy’s real father, children’s publisher Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is alive in New York.
Remaining as good-natured as ever, Buddy sets off with encouragement and advice from Father Christmas (Ed Asner) and other well-wishers, undaunted by issues that would put off less positive souls: firstly, Buddy’s real dad now has a family of his own and doesn’t know that Buddy was ever born; secondly, Walter is cynical, work-centred and firmly on Santa’s Naughty list.
Arriving through the Lincoln tunnel, Buddy is charmed by New York but his first meeting with Walter at his office in the Empire State Building is less than successful, though luckily his elf outfit leads him (briefly) to a job in the department store across the road where he meets lovely but shy songbird Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and causes a ruckus with a fake Father Christmas. Meanwhile, continued meetings with Walter lead to Buddy being taken in by his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen); but while Buddy becomes friends with his streetwise half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay), and miraculously gets a date with Jovie, relations with Walter remain frosty, not helped when Buddy causes chaos at work. Just when Buddy feels most rejected, a familiar face appears in desperate need of some know-how when it comes to raising Christmas cheer.
Should you wish to, it’s quite easy to take Elf apart and discover its workings; for Christmas films mine such a rich vein of sentimentality that original ideas are as scarce as genuine sightings of Santa, and Favreau’s film, with a screenplay by David Berenbaum, brings little truly new to the party. The plot is a solid amalgamation of ideas from such films as Santa Claus: The Movie and Miracle on 34th Street with Buddy adding the Pollyanna-ish qualities of Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk and Zooey Deschanel providing an off-the-shelf love interest (we hardly discover anything about her, other than that she likes to sing).
The fact that none of this seems to matter can be put down almost completely to Will Ferrell’s superb rendering of Buddy: he’s a big, lovable lump with a heart of gold, providing enormous helpings of physical comedy but never coming across as moronic. And while there’s no danger of Ferrell underplaying the part (as if he could), there is also a complete absence of cynicism or awareness of the artifice of the situation, either of which would have ruined the movie. With Ferrell in top form, dependable stars like Asner and Newhart also shine; Caan too is impressive, never relinquishing his hard personality, just bending to the extraordinary events he finds himself caught up in.
Elf’s absolute lack of cynicism leaves plenty of room for silly fun, such as Buddy’s encounter with Peter Dinklage’s writer of restricted size, Miles Finch, and lots of interaction between Buddy and Michael; it also has some truly surreal moments, mostly involving stop-motion characters at the North Pole such as Leon [Redbone] the Snowman and my own favourite, Mr Narwhal. And when it comes to the rousing climax – Santa’s stranded in Central Park and needs Buddy and his new family to create belief in him to raise the ‘Clausometer’ – the film manages to be both sweet and uplifting without ever becoming gooey, a trick that helps to overcome the undercooked nature of Buddy and Jovie’s love story and the forced drama of making Central Park Rangers the bad guys.
The trick is done, by the way, with clever writing and direction that provides distractions for all ages – for example, the grainy footage of Buddy walking through the woods will be eerily-familiar to most adults, though many will take a while to realise why.
Elf, then, is by no means a great departure from the Christmas film norm, confirming as it does the importance of putting family first and approaching life with a good, clean heart. But by acknowledging the syrupy nature of the subject matter in literal terms, Ferrell, Favreau and co. have side-stepped the trap of becoming cloying and – with a few caveats – have made a film that will surely be on the Christmas Nice list for years to come.