While delivering toys around the world one Christmas Eve, Santa Clause (Ed Asner) accidentally picks up a return gift to the North Pole....a baby from an adoption center. No one knows what to do, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) choosing to care for the human baby as if it was his own. Years pass and the boy grows into a man, Buddy (Will Ferrell), who simply doesn't fit in with the rest of Santa's elves working at the North Pole. He doesn't quite realize it though that he's human, not an elf, and that's when Santa Clause and Papa Elf tell Buddy the truth about how he came to be one of Santa's Elves. Without a solution if he sticks around the North Pole, Buddy decides to travel to New York City where he can meet his real birth father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan) but there's a twist there too. Walter, a book publisher, is on the Naughty List!!! Can Buddy figure it all out though in the big, bad real world? He's going to have some fun either way.
I saw this Christmas flick soon after its release in 2003, only recently catching up with director Jon Favreau's flick recently as part of the holiday season. It is incredibly easy to see the appeal in this very sweet, very funny X-Mas comedy. 'Elf' treads that fine line between just plain dumb and dumb....but still really funny. Don't be confused, most if not all of the humor is pretty dumb, but everyone and everything commits to the goofiness, credit going to screenwriter David Berenbaum in that department. Smart or dumb, the message is the most important thing. This is a Christmas flick about just that, Christmas and the holiday spirit. Mixed in with Buddy's effort to find his family is Buddy's effort to help save Santa and Christmas during a New York City detour. It's the time of the season meant for family, fun, being together and believing. How can you go wrong with that sort of message no matter the package?
Now while I'm a big fan, I can appreciate that Will Ferrell's humor usually isn't for everyone. With movies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers to his name, I'll always be a fan. Not everyone likes his typically odd, off the wall and most importantly, random sense of humor. For those few folks who haven't seen Elf, it's without a doubt his most family friendly movie. His performance as Buddy takes the movie from really good and funny to really good, funny and near classic. It works because Ferrell absolutely and completely commits to the goofiness. Growing up in the North Pole, working with the Elves every year, Buddy doesn't have a mean bone in him. He's polite, ridiculously nice and naive to....well, everything. He looks at and experiences life in the most pleasant way possible, with pure, unadulterated GLEE. It's impossible not to like Ferrell's Buddy, a great lead character for this sweet story.
There's too many memorable, truly funny scenes to mention, but some definitely stand out from the rest. Buddy's arrival in New York City is priceless, the genuinely naive man-child no idea what he's stepped into. He hops across a Manhattan sidewalk like he's playing hopscotch. He eats gum hidden under rails like the used gum is hidden treasure. He spins in a door like it's a roller coaster, waving at a businessman hailing a cab because he thinks he's just waving, takes paper ads and handouts because it'd be rude not to, the list goes on. As I mentioned, Ferrell absolutely commits to the part. It never feels forced, just an actor going for the best laugh possible. There's plenty of other moments to mention -- Buddy unknowingly getting drunk and dancing in a mail room, realizing a department store Santa (Artie Lange) is an imposter -- and one funnier than the next. Up to you to pick your favorite.
Kudos to the entire cast for committing, especially James Caan as the curmudgeonly, greedy book publisher who doesn't quite believe Buddy could possible be his son. It's fun seeing Caan do a lighter role, and he plays an excellent straight man to Ferrell's Buddy and his antics. The same for Ed Asner and Bob Newhart as Santa and Papa Elf, Newhart especially standing out with his typically deadpan delivery with seemingly no emotion at all. Also look for Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, a woman Buddy meets at Gimbel's working as an elf and instantly likes, Mary Steenburgen as Walter's wife who wants her husband to not be such a Grinch, Daniel Tay as Michael, Walter's younger son and Buddy's half-brother, and Faizon Love as the Gimbel's manager who has to deal with Buddy and all his antics.
There's a certain style here that plays well in addition to the story. The North Pole looks animated, and when it is real, it's pretty clearly an indoor set with "snow" and everything. When Buddy leaves, he talks to cartoon whales, penguins, bears and an arctic puffin as well as a wise snowman who tells Buddy it will be okay. The visual look reminded me of the old Christmas TV specials like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It all adds up to a gem of a Christmas flick, one that's definitely worth watching every December.
Elf (2003): *** 1/2 /****