More top quality gurning from Will Ferrell hides an uninspired story well.
You'll have seen trailers or posters for this latest in a long line of Christmas cash in movies by this point and have probably figured out by yourselves that it's one real joke is Will Ferrell in a silly costume acting like a hyperactive kid. Were it anyone other than Will Ferrell and this would be a very bad sign indeed. As it is, it's only a disappointing sign that there's no real imagination or thought gone into the bulk of the film but rest assured that it's not as intolerable as the concept initially seems.
Once Christmas eve as Santa (Edward Asner) visits an orphanage he manages to miss a baby crawling into his sack. On returning to the North Pole he discovers said child, names him Buddy and resolves that Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) should raise him. This he does, although after thirty years things are a little trying for a man who is now twice the size of everyone else around. Taking him aside, Papa Elf informs him that he's a little different from the other elves, in that he's a human. He points him in the direction of New York City and his biological father Walter (James Caan), a workaholic children's book publisher.
It's apparent that most of the thought gone into this film has been invested in this opening gambit. The forced perspective and varied camera trickery gone into creating an undersized world for Buddy is impressive, and captures the feel of children's story book illustrations perfectly. That Ferrell talking to a CG snowman doesn't seem jarring and unusual is a notable achievement, but as soon as Buddy emerges from the Lincoln tunnel into New York things get a little more predicable.
Walter wants little to do with Buddy, who he understandably views as a whacked out bozo nutjob, as most people would of a thirty year old in green tights acting like a hyperactive five year old. He kicks Buddy out in the direction of the toys section of a local department store where he fits in a little better, even making a friend in fellow shelf stacker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). After friendly a neighbourhood doctor (Jon Favreau moonlighting on his day job of directing this) confirms to Walter that Buddy is his offspring he takes him into his less than perfect homelife with his understanding yet neglected wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen, the screeching banshee of Channel 4's Gulliver's Travels adaptation) and son Michael (Daniel Tay).
Dontcha know, Buddy's madcap and zany antics bring joy to everyone apart from Walter, who gets all shirty and eventually turfs him out again after insulting a midget, seemingly only in order to fulfil the narrative imperative of a tearful reunion at the end. As yet there's not much linking it with Christmas so there's a subplot thrown in the last twenty minutes about Santa's jet engine falling off his sleigh, Buddy fixing it and Michael getting the world to believe in Santa again and bringing his family back together as a by product. Ho-hum.
On most levels, the story is more like a made for TV film than a major studio release. There's nothing inspired about this film after the first quarter hour and it's pretty much just a vehicle for Will Ferrell. As such it should be applauded, because for the longest time it seemed that Ferrell would be stuck in a limbo of sidekick and bit part roles when he's one of the top tier comic actors walking the boards. More films featuring Ferrell in a major role can only be a good thing, and he brings all of his skills to this dance. At times it feels like everyone's being a little too desperate to grab the laughs and many would fall flat were it anyone other than Ferrell running into a door at full pelt, but he has a gift for physical comedy that saves most of the film.
The final act of faffing around in Central Park with Santa falls very flat and might have an undue influence on the perceived quality of the film, but until this point it's better than decent. The supporting actors have little to nothing to do which is a tremendous waste of Newhart and Caan although as with all star vehicles the focus is rarely on them. Everyone appears a little flat and lifeless next to Ferrell's gooning, but I suppose that's the idea.
Elf won't be remembered as a classic Christmas film. In all likelihood, it won't be remembered at all. It is, however, exactly what it sets out to be. Charming, inoffensive and adequately funny throughout without tipping over into hilarious territory, this film has been designed to keep the kids entertained over the yuletide holidays without being unbearable for the parents. Modest goals perhaps, but it achieves them easily and for that we salute it.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
James Caan (Walter)
Bob Newhart (Papa Elf)
Edward Asner (Santa)
Mary Steenburgen (Emily)
Zooey Deschanel (Jovie)
Daniel Tay (Michael)
Faizon Love (Gimbel's Manager)