Should I Watch..? Elf
What's the big deal?
Elf is a festive fantasy comedy film released in 2003 and was directed by future Iron Man (1) director Jon Favreau. The film stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human raised by elves at Santa's workshop who journeys to New York to get reacquainted with his long lost father. The movie also stars James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen and Ed Asner. The film was released to a positive reception from critics, with many praising Ferrell's performance in the lead role. The film went on to earn more than $220 million worldwide and has since become a family favourite during the Christmas period. It has become so popular that it also led to a spin-off musical on Broadway in 2010 and a recent animated TV special, Buddy's Musical Christmas.
What's it about?
On Christmas Eve in 1973, an infant crawls into Santa's sack while he makes his deliveries to an orphanage. When the baby is discovered back at the North Pole, it is decided that the baby be called Buddy and placed in the care of Papa Elf. Concealing his true nature from Buddy as he grows up, Papa Elf can no longer deceive his adopted son due to his overgrown stature and poor toy-making ability. Discovering that his biological father Walter Hobbs is in New York and currently on the naughty list, Buddy sets off for the Big Apple for what he supposes will be a joyous reunion.
Sadly, Buddy's childish optimism is misplaced - Walter is greedy, selfish and unhappy to have this overgrown man-child turn up out of the blue. After being thrown out of Walter's book publishing company, Buddy takes up a suggestion from a security guard to go back to Gimbels and quickly finds himself mistaken for a store elf where he finds himself hopelessly falling in love with fellow store elf Jovie...
Release Date (UK)
28th November, 2003
Comedy, Family, Festive
What's to like?
It will come as no surprise to fans of Will Ferrell but he dominates the picture with infectious ease. His lanky build and comic timing are put to best use in the early scenes at the North Pole amid the workshops and housing for Santa's army of elves. But what the movie does is inject a healthy dose of cynicism into the film and not just by moving the story to arguably the most cynical city in the world, New York. As Buddy's naivety and confusion get him into constant scraps, we find our cynicism wearing away. We go from being annoyed at his permanent optimism to gleefully soaking up all the festive fun we can handle, something the film is all too happy to provide.
Ferrell's performance is pitched perfectly for a film of this sort, as Caan's rugged features are in his role of Walter. And in truth, the cast is full of delights from top to bottom from Deschanel's girl-next-door to Peter Dinklage's brilliant cameo as a children's author wonderfully rubbed up the wrong way by Buddy's innocence. Hollywood has a long (if not entirely successful) history of Christmas movies and Elf proves to be one of the better ones made recently. No wonder it has become a firm festive favourite over the holidays.
- Leon, the snowman at the North Pole, is named after the singer who provides his voice, Leon Redbone. Redbone's song Christmas Island is playing over the loudspeaker when Buddy asks Jovie out on a date.
- Terry Zwigoff was offered the chance to direct but he turned it down, instead going on to direct another Christmas-themed movie - Bad Santa (2).
- Deschanel's singing was not intended to appear in the movie and only featured when Favreau found out that she was a singer. She performs three songs in the film including a version of Baby, It's Cold Outside over the end credits with the aforementioned Leon Redbone.
What's not to like?
Ironically, the film's biggest problem might also be its biggest strength. Ferrell's excitable performance brings to mind the sort of roles that Jim Carrey or Robin Williams might have enjoyed early in their careers, the sort of hyperactive mania that can put many viewers off. In fact, I was already to pour scorn on the movie for allowing Ferrell to play yet another overgrown man-child. But in truth, he just about keeps things together and doesn't let his wilder impulses take over. Like Carrey and Williams, Ferrell is capable of turning any picture into a one-man show but thankfully, the rest of the cast get a look in as well.
Obviously, it also helps if you watch the movie at Christmas - I'm not saying that the movie isn't enjoyable during the rest of the year but having the decorations up and lights twinkling does add to the film's feel-good vibes. It might lack the heart-wrenching power of more traditional festive fare like It's A Wonderful Life (3) but it still puts a smile on your face and joy in your heart. And isn't that what a good Christmas movie is supposed to do?
Should I watch it?
Chances are, you already have but for those of you resistant to sugary festive films, I'd lower your guard for this one. It might be as goofy and twee as you'd imagine but with Ferrell on fine form, Elf should be one treat that the whole family can enjoy in the midst of winter. It isn't often these days that Hollywood can reproduce the old Christmas magic in fabled films of yore (see below) but this is a rare and gratefully welcome exception.
Great For: families, Christmas time, festive curmudgeons.
Not So Great For: anyone with a migraine, depressives, non-fans of Will Ferrell.
What else should I watch?
Remember how I said that recent Hollywood films have failed to recapture the magic of Christmas? If Bad Santa is as good as it gets then Heaven help us - a foul-mouthed crime caper that relies on a drunk Billy Bob Thornton swearing at children for laughs is a long way away from the life-affirming goodness found in the timeless It's A Wonderful Life. There are many reasons why it remains the greatest festive film of all time - its earnest approach to the story, the heart-rending portrayal of George Bailey and his desperate struggle by James Stewart, the genuinely moving climax or the magnificent direction by Frank Capra. But for me, it is one of the very few movies ever made in which I openly cry. And as my wife will tell you, I never cry at movies.
To find a proper Christmas film these days, you have to go back to the classics. Home Alone (4) has become just as popular these days as it was when it first came out as a very shouty Macaulay Culkin fends off dim-witted burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern with an assortment of paint cans and Micro Machines. For somewhat darker thrills, trust Tim Burton to take Christmas in a decidedly different direction - The Nightmare Before Christmas (5) is a stop-motion animation with enough catchy tunes and memorable characters to make it stand from the likes of festive turkeys like Four Christmases (6) and Santa With Muscles (7).