There are a couple of things about the legacy of Elf that have surprised me in the long run. The first is that it has now been a long run; the original film was released in 2003, and I had initially dismissed it as a flash in the pan. The second is that it has a legacy; while I found it more fun than I expected, even after seeing how good it really was, I never would have pegged it for a film that would have had a spin-off of any sort.
And yet, here we are. 2014 is proving to be a bit of a banner year in terms of the number of new Christmas specials. Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas is a singing stop-motion re-telling of Buddy the Elf’s story, directed by Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, part of the Robot Chicken crew. Unfortunately, although the animation is a charming throwback to the old Rankin-Bass days, the story loses something in transition.
The first issue is a relatively minor one; Buddy just seems physically out of place compared to other characters, with a neck that’s stretched to three times the height of other characters and super-spindly arms. All the characters are cartoony (it’s a cartoon, after all), but Buddy seems almost to be in a different style. It emphasizes his wackiness, which doesn’t really need emphasizing; it stands on it own. The characters are mostly designed to look like their film counterparts, even though only Ed Asner returns to voice his own character. So although Buddy and Jovie are reminiscent of Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel, their voices are provided by Jim Parsons and Kate Micucci. Buddy’s father, Walter Hobbs, is voiced by Mark Hamill. They all do a good job both with the speaking parts and the singing.
Speaking of the singing… although this is a musical, and there are plenty of songs, there are sadly few memorable ones. The only one that really stands out in my memory a few days later is the song performed by Walter’s wife Emily and son Michael (Rachael MacFarlane and Max Charles) about how they’ll believe in Santa Claus if he can make Walter a better family man. MacFarlane in particular has a good singing voice, and the song helps to beef up her part a little more, as the character was little more than set dressing in the original film. The rest of the songs, though well performed, fail to stick in the memory.
But the biggest issue I have with the TV special is the way the adaptation was handled. Being a special, it’s naturally a lot shorter than the film, and so Buddy’s story is compressed and accelerated. It turns out that this is exactly the wrong thing to do with Buddy. In my original review, I commented that it was possible that Buddy would wear out his welcome with a viewer if he was around too long. As it happens, a more concentrated dose of Buddy has the same effect; the last thing the ersatz elf needed was to be more frenetic. The special seems determined to hit all the highlight jokes of the film, but without as much time, it feels like it’s just rapidly hopping from one thing to the next. There’s never a breather, never a time to appreciate a joke settling in, never a chance to be touched by sentimentality, and never a chance to actually care about the characters. It’s just too fast for all of that. If you haven’t seen the film, you won’t know anything about the personality or development of any of the characters beyond Buddy; there simply isn’t time for them. Buddy’s adoptive elf father is even cut entirely; the narration is given instead by Santa (Asner), who inexplicably opens with a bit of disgruntlement about all the singing, a strange sentiment given both the climax of the film and special, and the fact that this is a musical.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. The voice actors all do quite well. The stop-motion animation is charming, and the songs, while not memorable, are pleasant enough to hear. Kids will sit down and watch it and probably enjoy it. Adults might find their patience strained by the end of it, though; I certainly did. Ultimately, I just don’t see a place for this TV special in peoples’ annual holiday viewings. If somebody wants to see the story of Buddy the Elf, they’re going to want to watch Elf.