Written by David Berenbaum
Directed by Jon Favreau
I’m not generally a fan of Will Ferrell movies. After having heard so many positive reviews of the movie Elf, including a recommendation by one of the people I work with who only goes to the movie once a year on Thanksgiving, I gave it a chance many years ago. It’s turned out to be a favorite Christmas movie of mine.
The film begins with Pap Elf (Bob Newhart) relating just how “Buddy” managed to come to live with the other elves in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. Poor Buddy was abandoned to an orphanage and never knew his real parents. He crawled into Santa’s bag while Santa (Ed Asner) was chowing down on the milk and cookies. For some reason, Santa failed to notice his presence until they arrived back at the North Pole and Buddy crawled out of the bag.
Buddy (Will Ferrell) stays with them, but there are problems. He’s twice the size of the other elves. He isn’t capable of building toys with the same lightning-fast speed as the other elves (must be something genetic). Finally, he has a heart-to-heart with Pap Elf who tells him all about his mother who put him up for adoption and passed away, and his father, who live in New York as a book publisher. Oh, and he’s on the naughty list.
The rest of the story involves Buddy’s quest to find his family in New York. He finds his father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan) working in the Empire State Building, and discovers he’s married with another son. Walter was an interesting character. He didn’t seem to be a “bad guy”, just someone who managed to get off track in life as his main focus became dollar signs and not being happy with his life. There are many people out there like this who go into one profession or another (in Walter’s case, publishing children’s books) because of their initial fondness for the work, and end up obsessed with the financial aspect. This what how the character of Walter Hobbs struck me.
Buddy may not have been the “perfect” elf, but he’s picked up some amazing talents and abilities from being around them. When he and his brother, Michael (Daniel Tey) are being chased by bullies through Central Park, Buddy manages to create a whole armload of snowballs in the time it takes Michael to create one. He can write a note on an Etch-a-Sketch faster than most people can on a pad.
Most of the really funny moments of the film comes as Buddy tries to adapt to the “real world”. When he hears Santa will be arriving at Gimbels (a department store that’s been out of business for quite some time, by the way), he makes all sorts of preparations in the toy department for him imminent arrival, only to be shocked when it’s an “imposter”. When he tries to go to work with his father, he is sent to the mail-room, where he befriends a man on parole who is something of a slacker, and together they turn the mail-room upside-down.
There are also some truly humorous moments as it’s shown that Buddy is so out of place in the elf world. I don’t know how it was done, but Bob Newhart was half the size of Will Ferrell, so this made for some pretty humorous situations. There were also pictures of Buddy playing basketball with his fellow elves (he looks bigger than Shaq).
There’s not much really in the way of gross-out humor, which was something I really appreciated. Buddy eats some pretty strange combinations of food, and indulges in maple syrup on just about everything, along with “finding” gum in some pretty odd places, but that’s about it. The one bodily-noise humor comes after he chugs a full 2-liter of soda, but my feelings of dread that this was going to take a downturn in the humor department after this were not founded.
Will Ferrell captures Buddy’s essence perfectly. He’s got a child-like innocence as he wanders around the city and has no real idea of the consequences of his actions at times. Ferrell plays Buddy perfectly – I didn’t see him as dumb, only innocent and naive. His expressions of wide-eyed innocence at the events going on around him are also near-perfect, and not exaggerated nor over-done. I credit director Jon Favreau for a lot of this. The film could have easily descended into being a farce, but he kept it in line. The only bad point I came across was the ending which felt a bit too much like a rip-off of the ending to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but the kids really enjoyed it.
Zooey Deschanel is Buddy’s love interest, a worker at Gimbel’s named Jovie. She seems alone in the “big city” and for Buddy, it’s love at first sight, although it takes a while for his Christmas spirit to rub off on the dispirited Jovie. Still, it’s Jovie who on their first date takes him to see the largest Christmas tree of all.
For me, that was the real star of the movie. I love going into New York City at Christmastime and walking around to see all of the decorations. The movie captures the store windows with their Holiday displays, the beauty of Rockefeller Center, and the decorations in some of the out-of-the way places. This film should do a lot for NYC tourism during the holiday period.
While the film raptly kept my 8-year-old’s interest, my 3-year-old was not impressed at all. It failed to capture his attention as many of the animated films do, and he fell asleep in my arms near the end. Although the film is rated PG, other than one “friggin'” and perhaps the burping scene and Buddy’s “gum harvest”, there was little that I could see that parents could complain about. It’s also a good film if your kids still believe in Santa or are at the cusp where they are starting to have doubts, much like The Santa Clause was for my older daughter (who opted to hang out with her friends rather than go to the theater with us – her loss).
This is a fun film for the whole family to enjoy this holiday season. It’s got some terrific laughs. I’m not a Will Ferrell fan at all, but I did enjoy this movie.