By Vic Holtreman
Short version: A family-friendly, funny and heartwarming holiday film with a great heart that is well worth watching more than once.
When was the last time that you've seen a movie that completely and utterly surprised you?
Last year a friend of mine and I left the wives at home, rounded up our kids and took them to the movies, as has become our annual Thanksgiving tradition. Around the holidays at least, it is possible to find family-friendly G or PG rated movies. Whether they will be any good is another story entirely.
Lacking any other holiday movies to which I could bring my then 7 year old, we settled upon Elf. Will Ferrel? Yet another "Saturday Night Live" alumnus? I figured hey, even if I think it stinks, at least the kids will probably find it funny.
Imagine how stunned I felt when this movie actually turned out to be great!
Right from the opening credits, I felt something was amiss... There was a nostalgic, light touch to them, reminding me of the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Immediately, the movie gained some "take me back" points. Of course I was certain that this was just a tease and it would soon veer off into some "edgy" or "hip" spin on the holiday season.
As soon as I saw Bob Newhart narrating.... in a green costume, pointy hat and ears... as an elf... the feeling began to creep in that we might be in for something good. Part of the opening was a description of elves and their three possible jobs: Cobblers, Cookie-makers who live in a tree, or toymakers. When the toymaker elves were shown and described, there was no innuendo, nudge-nudge-wink-wink or anything of the sort. Just wide-eyed innocence and the joy of making toys.
This couldn't be right... they don't make (live action) movies like this any more...
The basic story is that during his annual rounds, Santa visits an orphanage, where a curious little tyke is attracted by a teddy bear in Santa's bag. When we cut to Santa at the North Pole giving the elves atta-boys, out pops the baby. Santa decides to raise him as an elf.
Soon enough Will Ferrel as "Buddy" (brand name on the diapers the baby was wearing when found) outgrows by leaps and bounds his little pals, and we see how hard he tries to fit in, clueless that he's not a real elf. Again this is played straight, wide-eyed, and not tounge in cheek by Ferrell, and he keeps up this performance throughout the entire film.
And therein lies the charm of this movie. You get the feeling that you're watching this character who's really 6 years old on the inside (but is a fast learner) trying to figure out how the world works, and oblivious to the fact that everyone isn't as kind and giving as he is.
He learns that he's adopted, that his mother has died, but that his dad, played by James Caan (who has been on the "naughty" list for quite a while) is in New York City. Buddy decides to set out (on foot, from the North Pole of course) to find him.
From here it's clear that the influence of Buddy will turn dear old dad from the curmudgeon that he is to a kind fellow who once again learns the meaning of Christmas. But you know what? Jan Favreau's direction, David Berenbaum's script, and the actors create such a charming story that you won't care that you've seen it before. It does have enough of an original spin that is employed effectively by Will Ferrel to deliver lots of laughs that you can enjoy with your kids.
Elf is a great film that will remind you of how movies used to be funny without being inappropriate, and I can't recommend it highly enough.