Movie Review: Elf
By Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Writer David Sedaris launched his career in 1992 with "The SantaLand Diaries," a scorching, hilarious account of his brief career as a Macy's Christmas elf. Given the reaction to that story, which is still in regular holiday-season rotation on public radio and has been sold in book form, it's astonishing that Hollywood didn't move faster on this fertile elfin ground.
While "Elf" doesn't have Sedaris (his sister Amy has a small part, however), it does have "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Ferrell in a role stitched into his DNA.
Ferrell plays Buddy, an orphaned human who was raised as an elf after he crawled into Santa's (Edward Asner) bag one Christmas Eve. The dim Buddy doesn't figure out his heritage until his 30s, at which time his adoptive elf father (Bob Newhart) tells him that his biological father (James Caan) lives in New York City and - horror of all horrors! - Buddy's dad is on the naughty list. With his work cut out for him, Buddy rides an ice float to the Big Apple with plans for a reunion.
Ferrell, with his frozen-on smile, could be called the anti-Adam Sandler. Even in serious roles ("Punch-Drunk Love"), Sandler has embodied the angry, stunted man-child, whereas Ferrell's stock-in-trade has been boyishly innocent male characters. Buddy, with his bright, doe-eyed disposition and cheerful outlook, provides a home-run character for Ferrell, who keeps us laughing even through some very obvious fish-out-of-water jokes.
"Elf," formulaic but lovable, is essentially "Big" in pointy shoes. Instead of a toy store, Buddy ends up working at Gimbel's, where co-worker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) captures his heart just before he gets fired.
"You sit on the throne of lies," Buddy tells one store Santa, provoking the false St. Nick to throttle him.
Filmmaker Jon Favreau, co-writer of "Swingers" and director of "Made," brings the North Pole to life with shiny, happy elves in pointy hats and with plate-sized snowflakes in a winter wonderland. There's even a tip of the hat to the old Rankin/Bass cartoons, with a computer-generated homage to Sam the Snowman (once voiced by Burl Ives) from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
There's also a bit of brilliant typecasting with Newhart as Buddy's buttoned-down Papa Elf. Nearly MIA since the '80s, Newhart narrates an inspired opening; Papa Elf lays out exactly why elves, and not gnomes or trolls, cheerfully make toys in Santa's sweatshop. Gnomes apparently love booze, and trolls aren't potty-trained.
Ferrell, not the sharpest hat in the bunch, can't grin himself through his outcast status, being roughly twice the size of everyone else. The naive Buddy may be the key to rekindling Christmas spirit amongst humans, most of whom don't believe in Santa any more. Even Santa's sleigh, which used to run on pure holiday spirit, now relies on rocket technology.
Nearly all Christmas stories end with the rejuvenation of holiday spirit. Heck, even "Gremlins" follows that formula. So, with Christmas movies, it's not the destination but the candy-colored journey. For his part, Caan brings enough bah-humbug to counter Buddy's sugar-fueled enthusiasm. It's smart of Favreau to allow the audience to identify with Caan, an overworked book publisher who doesn't have time for his family. It makes his ultimate surrender, and ours, to Buddy just a bit sweeter.
Directed by Jon Favreau; written by David Berenbaum; photographed by Greg Gardiner; production design by Rusty Smith; edited by Dan Lebental; music by John Debney; produced by Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki, Shauna Weinberg. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Nov. 7. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: PG (some mild rude humor and language).
Buddy - Will Ferrell
Walter - James Caan
Jovie - Zooey Deschanel
Santa Claus - Edward Asner
Papa Elf - Bob Newhart
Emily - Mary Steenburgen