Thursday 13 December 2007

Elf (2003)

Thursday 13 December 2007
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: David Berenbaum

Cast: Will Ferrell (Buddy), James Caan (Walter), Zooey Deschanel (Jovie), Edward Asner (Santa Claus), Bob Newhart (Papa Elf), Mary Steenburgen (Emily), Daniel Tay (Michael), Faizon Love (Krumpet), Peter Dinklage (Miles Finch), Amy Sedaris (Deb), Michael Lerner (Fulton), Andy Richter (Morris), Kyle Gass (Eugene), Artie Lange (Gimbel's Santa), Claire Lautier (NY1 Reporter) & Richard Siden (Elf Teacher)

A baby is accidentally taken back to the North Pole by Santa and grows up to become an oversized elf, eventually leaving for New York to find his real father...

Christmas movies come in varying shapes and sizes, from heart-warming sincerity to slapstick adventure, and the sophomore effort of writer/actor/director Jon Favreau is firmly in the latter camp. Elf is a high-concept fantasy that plays like an extended sketch, so it's fitting that Saturday Night Live alumni Will Ferrell is its star...

Ferrell plays Buddy, a human raised by elves in Santa's workshop, ever since he crawled into Father Christmas' sack as a baby. Thirty-odd years later, Buddy begins to outgrow his miniature friends (quite literally), and learns from his Papa (Bob Newhart) that he's actually a human and his biological father lives in New York...

After a distracting and queasy dalliance with stop-motion animated penguins, a snowman and a narwhal (which aren't magical, just ridiculous), Buddy leaves the North Pole and heads to NYC.

Once Buddy arrives in the Big Apple, Elf essentially becomes a variation of 80s classic Big, as Buddy is endowed with the same naivety and innocence as Tom Hanks' child-in-a-man's-body character. Needless to say, Buddy's wide-eyed hysterics and fish-out-of-water comedy attracts irritation from those around him, although cute shop girl Jovie (Zoeey Deschanel) begins to warm to his bizarre ways...

Buddy's real father, children's book publisher Walter (James Caan), remains frosty towards his kooky son, primarily because he's a high-flier who doesn't need the hassle and embarrassment of an insane progeny messing up his already fracturing family unit.

The best thing you can say about Elf is that the concept is solid and Will Ferrell does his best to make Buddy engaging, funny and not half as grating as you expect. There are also some memorable moments dotted around, too -- like an elongated belch at the dinner table, Buddy's frantic snowball fight with half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay), a fight sequence with tiny Peter Dinklage, and Buddy's constant inability to realize everyone thinks Santa's fictional.

But, the engine of the film is decidedly flat and uninspired. At a mere 93 minutes, Elf should have been focused and exciting, but the storyline is painfully predictable and doesn't develop very neatly.

Love interest Jovie falls head-over-heels for Buddy too quickly, implausibly deciding to spend time with a grown-man who think he's an elf, and doesn't know how to use escalators. She falls in love purely because the plot demands it, and there's never any sense that the two characters are slowly growing closer, or find something in each other they'd lose if they were apart...

Similarly, Walter goes from exasperated corporate grump to cheery believer at the drop of a hat, which robs the film of any sense that Buddy actually affected anyone's lives. Instead, Elf plays like a story about a slightly-creepy fantasist spending time with a normal family, until they give in and join him in cloud cuckoo land...

Most frustrating is the weak finale, with the real Santa (Edward Asner) crash-landing in Central Park and needing Buddy's help to repair his sleigh -- by instilling Christmas spirit in the locals, before a trio of horse riding park rangers (a Lord Of The Rings Ringwraiths spoof?) arrive to... er, throw Mr Claus in prison for disturbing the peace?

Elf is strangely empty and struggles to become anything more than a good-natured riff. That it's entertaining on any level is down to Ferrell's enthusiastic performance -- certainly not the limp script, Favreau's flaccid direction, or the limp supporting cast. Caan generally looks bored, Deschanel is cute but deadpan, and -- despite a lot of snow and glitter everywhere -- Elf fails to evoke much Christmas spirit.

New Line Cinema
Budget: $33 million
93 minutes