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Elf (2003)

1 December 2003 by Gnoll No Comment

ELF


2003, dir. Jon Favreau
95 min. Rated PG.
Starring: Will Farrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Edward Asner.

Review by Gnoll

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Christmas season doesn’t officially start until the day after Thanksgiving. Sure, ELF was out in theaters three weeks ago, but I purposefully didn’t see or review it until after Turkey Day had come and gone, simply out of principle. Yes, I do have principles, so shut up.

I first started seeing ads for ELF back at the end of Summer, and I thought it looked horrible. I’ve never been much for Will Ferrell, and the concept just looked ridiculous. I had absolutely no desire to see the movie up until the point that it was released. When it started getting positive reviews from the so-called “Nation’s Top Critics”, I thought that perhaps my judgment had been clouded, so I decided that I would check it out. I figured that Jon Favreau’s hand in it could only be a positive factor, and supposedly Ferrell did a great job in capturing the spirit of the film or whatever. This past weekend, I finally checked it out.

Well, ELF isn’t the god-awful monstrosity I had initially predicted it would be, but it wasn’t exactly the future holiday classic that the critics are holding it to either. ELF is, at best, an average little family film that would likely get swept under the mat if it didn’t have a somewhat bankable star anchoring it. But more about will Ferrell later.

ELF is a simple story with a decent enough premise about an orphaned boy who crawls into Santa’s sack one Christmas night and stows away to the North Pole. Santa has a soft spot for the tyke, so he raises him as an elf, naming him “Buddy”. Or course, Buddy grows to three times the size of his fellow elves, and he’s not quite the producer that his peers are, so he feels as if he doesn’t fit in. When he discovers the truth about his origins, he decides to set out to find his biological father in New York City, despite Santa’s warnings that daddy’s on the “naughty” list.

Of course, his father, as well as everyone else in the real world, think Buddy’s crazy. He is able to slowly win over a few folks, including his half-brother Michael and a girl from the local department store who he fancies named Jovie. Of course, the real trick is trying to win his father’s love, but all he cares about is his job. Stuff happens, and Christmas magic gets spread. You know the drill by now.

ELF gets a lot of praise heaped on to it by many critics, most of them citing Will Ferrell’s performance as Buddy. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been the biggest Ferrell Fan in the world. The first impression I ever had of the guy was in that insipid cheerleader sketch from Saturday Night Live. Ever since, it’s been hard for me to go in to anything he does without some prejudice. I think he does okay in roles where he is able to use his goofy antics to his favor without going too far over the top, as he does in OLD SCHOOL. But giving Ferrell the ball and letting him run with it is a different story. Buddy’s characterization bugged me, and a lot of that had to do solely with the way Ferrell played the part. I liked Buddy at the North Pole. Naive, a little slow, emotional, and shy. As soon as he gets to New York, this strange and foreign place where he should be watching his every step, he’s suddenly carefree, bold, and and ridiculous, with Ferrell putting the goofball factor into overdrive. Yeah, part of this can be blamed on the script and/or direction, but Ferrell’s antics sure don’t help either.

But the movie really didn’t work for me on the old heartstring-tugger level either. Okay, the main point of the movie is for Buddy the Elf to come down to New York, find his father, and live happily ever after. Of course, his father is going to be this gruff and cold businessman who doesn’t even have time for his existing family, much less a new member who drops in some thirty years after conception. So daddy (played by James Caan, trying his damnedest here) first has Buddy escorted out by security, then later arrested, and finally after determining that he’s the real McCoy after a blood test, reluctantly takes Buddy in to his home. Still, nothing that Buddy does has any effect but to make his father even more disgusted by his presence. But, since this is a movie and all, he’s going to come around and love his son. It’s just too bad that when they wrote the script, they conveniently leave out the reasons why this happens.

You see, stuffy old workaholic daddy, who has given his other son the shaft for twelve years and finally tells his new old son to take a hike, suddenly and without precedence just decides to walk out of the most important business meeting of his life to bring his family back together. Basically, he just takes a complete emotional 180 as one of the laziest epiphanies I’ve ever witnessed unfurls on screen. It’s utter bullshit, and left me wanting to walk out of the theater. Seriously, has the cliche become so expected in modern cinema that we’re not even supposed to explain why it happens anymore? To try and redeem the change in heart just a little bit, daddy still has some reluctance to sing along with some Christmas Carolers in the big rousing climax. I guess at least one of the script doctors realized that they had to have at least a tiny dab of consistency to the character.

There’s also the token romantic subplot, and if there were ever a movie where it wasn’t needed, you’ve found it. It’s one thing that physically, the pushing-40 Will Ferrell and the young-and-looking-younger Zooey Deschanel look like they have as much business together as Angelina and Billy Bob did, but if that wasn’t enough, there’s little to no chemistry between them at all. Oh yeah, and if you’re going to make the girl all surly and stoic in the beginning, don’t make her so easily fall for a six foot two thirty-year-old who thinks he’s an elf. I’m just sayin’. None of it worked for me, and would have been better left out of the script to begin with.

Now, with all that being said, I didn’t hate the movie. While it was terribly flawed in a lot of ways, had a major gaping hole in the story as mentioned above, and was hurt by the characterization and portrayal of the titular Elf, it did work in a few spots. The supporting cast do what they can to pick up some pieces, as James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, and Ed Asner flow well in their roles. Andy Richter and Kyle Gass show up in small roles to the delight of this reviewer, and there’s a fairly funny scene where Buddy tussles with a diminuitive writer, played by THE STATION AGENT’s Peter Dinklage. There’s a certain element of fantasy as well, and I mean beyond the whole Is Santa Real? aspect of it all. Buddy walks to New York from the North Pole in a short matter of time dressed only in his Elf suit and tights, which he then proceeds to wear for several days without even a mention that they might be really stinky by now. Nobody seems to wonder how Buddy, who also has the ability to pull large bottles of maple syrup from his sleeves, has managed to stay relatively thin on a ravenous diet of pure sugar, either. This sort of aloof implausibility in the movie helps to set that magical Christmas tone or whatever. You see, some of the comedy works, but unfortunately it’s way too hit-and-miss to earn a glaring recommendation.

I guess, as a movie to take the kids to or for a mindless chuckle, it’s a fairly innoculous piece of cinema. Most folks appear to disagree with my assessment of Ferrell’s talents, so they’re less likely to be put off by some of the ridiculous things he does in the course of the movie. But if you’re expecting some timeless classic that will eventually be looked upon like we see A CHRISTMAS STORY, then you’re bound to be disappointed. You’d be better off saving the eight bucks and heading to the local video hole to rent one of the gems from our Retarded Christmas Top Ten. Pray they ain’t sold out of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

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