So, it’s December 4th, exactly three weeks until Christmas Day (well, Christmas night). I’ll admit I’m not quite ready to go into all-out Christmas mode yet. I’m easing into the Christmas music, letting it be randomly selected by Windows media player among my regular mix (in fact, it just queued up “Christmas Dreams” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra as I typed this), but I’m not totally switching over to it yet. I know some people don’t even wait until Thanksgiving to put up their lights, but I’m not going to festoon my blog with holly leaves just yet. But it is time to start filtering a few films with festive feelings into my reviews. So while the Christmas blog banner isn’t on the main page yet, it is here to be hung above the holiday reviews, and a category for Christmas Cinema has been added.
First up is a film I’d avoided for some time, 2003’s Will Ferrell vehicle, Elf. I had stayed away because the promos seemed like it would wear thin on me quickly, that it would be an extended Ferrell sketch. But my brother kept insisting he thought I would like it, and so eventually I relented. I did, however, idly wonder as I started the movie how long it would be until I hit the first bit of toilet humor.
1 minute, 50 seconds, as it turned out.
Despite that inauspicious beginning, however, Elf actually turned out to be an enjoyable family film. Elf tells the story of Buddy (Ferrell), an orphan who sneaks into Santa’s sack as an infant one Christmas Eve. When Santa (Ed Asner) discovers him, one of his senior elves (Bob Newhart) offers to adopt the child, having always wanted a son of his own. Thirty years later, Buddy has grown up (and up) and is finding life just a little hard in Santa’s workshop. He doesn’t seem to quite fit in, and he can “only” turn out 85 Etch-A-Sketches (by hand) a day. When he overhears a couple of elves describe call him a human, he learns the truth: his mother had a romance with a man, Walter Hobbs, and gave birth to him out of wedlock, putting him up for adoption. She’s since passed away, and Hobbs never learned of his son’s existence. Looking for his place in the world, Buddy goes out to find his birth father.
Along the way he discovers magical and exciting things such as the joys of being escorted by building security.
When Buddy meets Walter (James Caan), Walter reacts the way any normal business executive would when confronted by a 6’3″ elf who claims to be your son: he throws him out. Buddy winds up accidentally working at retailer Gimbel’s, where he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a store worker who is a bit reserved, unenthused about her job, and as Buddy discovers, is uncomfortable singing in public. After a mishap with a mall Santa (FAKE!), Buddy has to be bailed out of jail, and calls Walter to get him. Surprisingly, Walter does, and a DNA test confirms the relationship. At the urging of Walter’s wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), the Hobbs take Buddy in and he begins to bond with Emily and his young half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay). Buddy pays attention to Michael, has fun with him, and bails him out of a snowball fight by being used to the faster rate of production at Santa’s workshop; in turn, Michael, being much more worldly than his twenty-years-older brother, helps him to get Jovie to go out on a date with him.
One of the few cases where Zooey Deschanel is on the receiving end of the “naive charmer gets love interest to loosen up” subplot.
It’s a Christmas movie, so of course Buddy wins everyone over, and saves the day for Santa during a Christmas Eve mishap. There are appropriate Christmas songs played throughout, and a cast singing number near the end (and in a rare truth, the only one to actually have a good singing voice is Deschanel; it results in the kind of joyous cacophony that you actually hear during the holidays instead of the pitch-perfect choir singing that so often is present in movies and specials). There’s also a lot of affection for Christmas movies and specials past; blues singer Leon Redbone voices an animated snowman who is clearly based on Burl Ives’s snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (incidentally, the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that Deschanel and Ferrell duet on is reprised during the credits with Deschanel joined by Redbone instead. Very good.) And there are some laughs; a few are of the frat boy or cringe comedy variety (Buddy naively getting drunk, or thinking lingerie “for that special someone” is a good gift for his dad), and a bit of fish-out-of-water humor (including a funny scene with Peter Dinklage’s character losing it at Buddy innocently calling him an elf), but most of it is simple slapstick-y humor that is worth a quick smile and the occasional laugh.
Just another day in New York City.
Elf is about an hour and a half long, and that’s about the right length. Any more than that, and the energetic Buddy would switch from charming to irritating. Although I enjoyed Elf, it’s probably not a film I’m going to re-watch often; but it’d be all right as background noise while wrapping presents or decorating a tree. And I think kids would love it. Kids are, de facto, the target audience for Christmas movies, and Buddy is really just a big kid. Most of the humor is aimed right at their level.
So, having now watched two Will Ferrell movies after avoiding his work for so long, I find that I’ve actually enjoyed both of them. What’s worse, I have to admit my brother was right about something. This is what running a blog does to you. (But I’m still not touching Talladega Nights with a ten foot pole.) Elf is a fun bit of seasonal fluff, and although it may wear thin for some adults, it’s worth a watch, especially if you have kids to entertain.