Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Christmas movies come in many varieties. There are those that try to make a quick buck for theatrical release (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Jingle All the Way would be examples of this). Then you get movies with something related to Christmas becoming classics (Die Hard would fit this bill). Another group are all the movies that try too hard to become “classics” (the remake of The Grinch is an appropriate example). Then you get a movie like Elf, a charming story about a man-child who spent most of his life as one of Santa’s elves. It’s improbable to think that Jon Favreau rationally thought he was going to make a modern-Christmas classic, but this film contains so much warm-hearted humour, charm, and innocence that it’s hard not to fall in love with this movie.
Buddy (Will Ferrell) finds out that he’s not like all the other elves. First off, he’s three four times their size. He learns that he found his way into Santa’s sack one fateful Christmas and was adopted by an elf. Even though Santa’s workshop is all he knows, he sets out to find his biological father who happens to live in New York City. Buddy soon comes to realize that there is a big difference between life in the North Pole and New York. He quickly meets his father Walter (James Caan), who is the complete opposite of Buddy. While Buddy is kind, warm, and optimistic, Walter is mean, cold, and cynical. After confirming the Buddy is indeed his son, Walter is resistant to having a relationship with Buddy. However, Buddy keeps trying with a major charm offensive. Walter needs all the love as he can get as his business and his family are starting to fall apart.
Simply put, this movie is fun to watch. It’s very funny and charming which is essential for a Christmas comedy that everyone can enjoy. Kids can watch the movie and laugh at all the absurd things that Buddy does and adults can laugh at the exact same jokes. The jokes are not written for kids or adults in particular; they’re just funny. Most of the time, you get family movies where you have scenes written primarily for kids and then scenes that only the adults will get to make it watchable for everyone. However, with Elf, the family can laugh together at the jokes. For example, when Buddy thinks he’s meeting Santa at the department store, the interaction and hijinks that ensues is funny for the kids, but the Buddy’s integration of Santa will make adults laugh at the same time. There are times where the dialogue moves to fast or a bit too complicated for younger ones but most kids who know how to do long division will be able to follow along with the movie just fine.
The characters are also very well-written, and the actors do an excellent job making them feel real. Will Ferrell’s Buddy is the warm-hearted soul who loves everything. James Caan’s Walter is someone who’s heart has run cold but still wants to care about life and those around him. Zooey Deschenel’s, Jovie, has a very interesting character arc as someone who is starting to sour on life but gets infected with Buddy’s optimistic attitude. Jovie begins to learn to love the little things about Christmas and, in turn, begins to fall in love with Buddy. Mary Steenburgen’s Emily is the perfect counter as Walter’s wife. She’s kind and empathetic and is one of the only people that still sees the good in Walter; even if Walter doesn’t want to acknowledge that the good in him still exists. These characters along with the other supporting case make for wonderful chemistry. The interaction between everyone mostly comes across as natural and gives the movie a sense of life and realism that seems almost impossible with a movie asking everyone to believe that Santa truly exists.
The key word of that last sentence is mostly. Elf is not without its flaws and, for some, they could be dealbreakers. The backstory that leads to the events of this movie is that Walter has a child with another woman (before he met Emily). Upon finding out that Walter has a son from another relationship, Emily is super easy-going with the situation. Even though the movie acknowledges her quick acceptance to the situation, it still feels unnatural. The ending of the movie also feels a little cheesy to the point where it really feels like it’s slapping you in the face that this is a family Christmas movie. The ending is a little too happy and when you get the feeling that a Christmas movie is trying too hard to be endearing, it can be difficult to stomach.
Despite that criticism, when it comes down to it, Elf is a fun movie. Jon Favreau has crafted an exceptionally hilarious film that’s enjoyable for the entire family. Even if there was no such thing as a family or Christmas movie, it would still be a great movie to see Will Ferrell and company tell a wonderful story that will most likely be a movie that many will watch every December for some time to come.