This has been a depressing decade for family-centric Christmas classic wannabes. Truth is, there hasn't been many. Thankfully, Jon Favreau's 2003 Christmas family comedy, Elf exists.
When Will Ferrell delivers a great performance, he delivers a great performance. The man has legitimate talent, which makes you wonder why he even allows himself to star in distasteful atrocities of cinematic doom. Just watch Ferrell in The Producers and Stranger Than Fiction. He can convincingly sing and dance and search for the meaning of life.
Most members of the (not so) prestigious Hollywood "frat pack" are capable of some sort of acting greatness, but not when they resort to the downgraded cheapness of bathroom humor.
But Elf is a delightful mixture of semi-distasteful humor (toned down for the kids) and genuine warmth that celebrates the over-the-top sentimentalism of the Christmas spirit. Ferrell sells it, through and through. Even if it means running through the streets of Manhattan in yellow tights.
The film opens in the North Pole. Buddy the Elf (Ferrell) is obviously bigger than all the other elves at Santa's Workshop. He finds out that he's really human. Buddy's mother gave birth to him, without his father's knowledge; his mother has since passed away.
But Buddy's adopted father, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), encourages Buddy to find his adopted father in New York City. Before Buddy begins his adventure, Santa (Edward Asner) warns Buddy that his father is on the naughty list.
Buddy arrives in New York City, dressed in his laughably cartoonish elf costume, eager to meet his father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan). Walter is a frustrated workaholic at a children's book publishing company and clearly thinks Buddy is insane. Walter initially tries to escape Buddy's constant pursuit of a father-son relationship, but after a DNA test makes it clear that Buddy is indeed his son, Walter brings him home.
While Walter's family (son, Daniel Tay; wife, Mary Steenburgen) quickly warms up to Buddy, Walter sees Buddy as another problem for him to solve. Walter's already under pressure to produce a new children's book idea for the company.
Meanwhile, Buddy falls for a department store employee (Zooey Deschanel), who can sing a wonderful rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
Very few comedies make me laugh out loud. That might be a reason why I avoid them or show very little interest in them. But Elf makes me laugh. It's filled with clever one-liners and ridiculously absurd scenes. The film is also surprisingly touching; it's almost a coming-of-age, search-for-identity film, disguised in red-and-green wrapping paper.
Caan embodies a disgruntled modern Scrooge terrifically. The character doesn't call for ditzy comedy, but the way Caan delivers those cold-hearted lines is funny in its own chillingly sarcastic way.
While some may argue that Deschanel's deadpan deliveries and astounding indie chick quirkiness is not everyone's cup of tea, she is a damn good singer. She makes "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" sound like an essential for a Christmastime mixtape.
The arrival of an egocentric children's book author (Peter Dinklage) is a hilarious scene. Dinklage establishes how much of a fearless comedian he is, who can nearly overshadow Ferrell's overbearingly optimistic joker. In fact, Dinklage even beats up Ferrell's Buddy because of an unintentional insult Buddy makes. It's a scene that you expect to get old, but doesn't.
Elf fits into the Christmas film genre scheme perfectly. Christmas in New York. Ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Gimbels department store. Central Park. Mean corporate workaholics. Kickass Christmas soundtrack. It's a silly, endearing family movie. But that's not all there is to it.
Instead of being one big, sloppy continuation of cliches, the film is surprisingly original and warm--a quality that we don't see very much in the genre anymore. Yes, it is predictable, but it's the journey that matters. There is some sort of heart and good intentions to be found in Elf, underneath all those sparkling Christmas lights.
Time to make room for Elf...right next to Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life. And no, that is not an exaggeration. Elf is, undeniably, a Christmas classic in the making. A-