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Elf   C-

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: David Berenbaum
Cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Edward Asner, Bob Newhart, Daniel Tay, Faizon Love.

Review by Rob Vaux

Two films opening this week -- Elf and Love Actually -- bear a distinct Christmas theme, despite the fact that Thanksgiving is still three weeks away. I know it's a crowded marketplace out there, but for the love of all things holy, could you at least wait until we've cleared the Halloween cobwebs before burying us beneath Yuletide cheer? Christmas comes but once a year; there's no need to bum-rush us with it until we're braced for the shock.

Having said that, Elf probably wouldn't make a good impression no matter when it was released. It espouses a depressingly clichéd message of holiday cheer, stamped from the factory-approved mold and delivered with mirthless calculation. These sorts of movies don't get any fresher with age -- not unless you can bring something really different to the table -- and Elf lacks even the semblance of such a spark. It's especially distressing considering the presence of director Jon Favreau, an otherwise original voice who seems resigned to cashing a check here.

Elf's appeal hinges largely on your feelings towards Will Ferrell, the aging Saturday Night Live alumnus cavorting on the movie's poster. If the thought of him banging his head on walls, wandering through Manhattan in yellow tights, and trying to teach Sonny Corleone the true meaning of Christmas makes you smile, then you've come to the right place. I, unfortunately, am on the wrong side of that equation; Ferrell's appearance -- as a human named Buddy raised by Santa's little helpers -- hovered between the cockeyed and the unsettling for me and the mood scarcely improved when Elf's story kicked into gear. Disheartened by his large size and finally clued into the fact that he is not, in actuality, an elf, he sets out from the North Pole to find his biological father (James Caan) who has become -- you'll never guess -- a Scrooge-like workaholic obsessed with money.

The formula feels creaky from the start, and severely limits the filmmakers' comedic options. Despite a few predictable jabs at classic holiday specials and a very droll opening from Bob Newhart (playing Buddy's adopted father), Elf only brandishes one kind of joke. Its hero's relentless cheerfulness and man-child naivete mingle with clichéd New York cynicism to produce a predetermined amount of comic mayhem. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Favreau keeps the tone milquetoast and comfortable, refusing to deviate from expectations for even an instant, and while Ferrell throws himself into the role with ferocious energy, the results never justify the effort. Indeed, they feel more like a visualized sugar rush than anything really funny. Elf also sports too many plot threads for its slight frame to handle: Buddy finds a love interest (Zooey Deschanel), his dad has to fend off a sour-pussed corporate boss (Michael Lerner), and there's some weak material involving Santa's sleigh that forms the crux of the film's jumbled finale. None of it feels right, and even Ed Asner's nicely understated St. Nick can't elicit many ho-ho-hos.

If Elf has a trump card, it lies in its relative harmlessness. The corporate groupthink on display is exasperating, but never really hateful, and credit the filmmakers with establishing a legitimately family-friendly atmosphere. Kids tend to gravitate towards big awkward characters (dinosaurs, robots, Frankenstein's monster), and Ferrell's pratfalls earned a lot of giggles from the eight-year-olds at my screening. Even the gross-out jokes are fairly benign, limited to an extended belch and one distasteful sequence where Buddy samples the gum from a sidewalk handrail. But kids deserve better, just like adults, and if Elf is the best we can do, it only goes to show how starved we are for decent fare. Christmas candy should never be this stale... especially so early in the season.

Review published 11.07.2003.

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