Click here 3 and a half stars

Will Ferrell It's just
a matter
of Will

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell
in a fun tribute
to good-spirited
holiday films


Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla

(Click on the images to see larger versions and credits. After viewing, lick your browser's Back button to return to the story.)

It's been a while since a holiday movie has been as fun as ""Elf.'' Will Ferrell takes the title role as Buddy, a human who as a baby crawled into Santa's bag and was brought back to the North Pole by mistake, and raised as an elf. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), a master tinker, takes the human baby in and trains him to be cheerful and full of Christmas spirit.

Bob Newhart, Will Ferrell

Ed Asner

Zooey Deschanel

Steenburgen, Tay, Caan
However, poor Buddy doesn't quite fit in with the other elves - for one thing, he's about twice their size. He's not terribly quick at making toys, but everyone has a soft spot in their heart for him, which covers the sad fact that he makes things harder for the other toymaking elves.

As Buddy discovers this, he seeks the advice of Santa (a nearly unrecognizable Ed Asner), which is to go and find Walter Hobbs, his human father in New York City. Buddy's biological dad (James Caan) is the polar opposite of the son he didn't know he had; a curmudgeonly, self-centered workaholic whose wife (Mary Steenburgen) despairs of the constant hole in the family that is her husband, and whose son Michael (Daniel Tay) has become used to his father being a non-entity in his life.

Buddy -- resplendent in green tunic, yellow tights and pointy hat -- bursts up on New York City with a charming naievete that can make him giddy with wonder one moment and silent with befuddlement the next. Elvenkind are direct and honest at all times, so when Buddy barges in to his father's office in the Empire State Building, he's at first thought to be a Christmasgram singer, but is then thought to be a loony, with all his talk of elves and Santa Claus. After being escorted out of the building, he wanders into Gimbels and is mistaken for an employee, in his elven garb. There he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a beautiful but highly defensive seasonal worker down on her luck. She is very suspicious of Buddy, but they are taken with each other anyway.

After a brawl with a fake Santa lands Buddy in jail, he calls his father to bail him out. Because Buddy had information about Walter's past life, he has Buddy's DNA tested (the doctor who administers the test is Jon Favreau, the director). To Walter's horror, Buddy is indeed the son he didn't know he had.

Walter brings Buddy home, where his Elven upbringing leads to a bit of culture shock and a lot of havoc - Buddy tends to burst in at inappropriate times and say things that people just don't say to each other these days. And while he brings kindness, love and a sense of belonging to Walter's family, he may cost his father everything he's tried to build up in life.

And in the meantime, Santa's sleigh is malfunctioning - it needs Christmas spirit to remain aloft, and there's an acute shortage of it these days. Santa's been getting by with a mechanical engine, but when that fails, Christmas is in jeopardy - unless Buddy can save the day.

Director Favreau is known for quirky but entertaining independent movies such as "Very Bad Things" (in which he acted), "Swingers" (which he wrote) and "Made" (which he directed). This is his first major Hollywood movie behind the camera (he appeared in front of it in such movies as "Daredevil," "Deep Impact" and "The Replacements"), and he proves himself up to the challenge.

"Elf" has a quirky sense of humor that manifests itself from the get-go (when the Keebler elves set their tree bakery on fire), but that humor is tempered with a genuine respect for holiday movies that came before. "A Christmas Story" star Peter Billingsley cameos as a supervisor in Santa's workshop, and the Burl Ives snowman from "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is paid homage to with a snowman friend of Buddy's during the North Pole sequences. That combination enables the movie to remain sweet without becoming treacly.

Ferrell comes into his own here, admirably carrying the movie on his broad shoulders. He is childlike without being over the top, portraying the sensibilities of a child without plunging into the mannerisms of one. I had heretofore never been fond of the Saturday Night Live veteran -- I always thought he tried a bit too hard -- but this role is perfect for him. Deschanel is also quite good, shooting up from less memorable roles in "Mumford," "Almost Famous," "Big Trouble," "Abandon" and others and looking solid as a romantic lead (and if that voice is hers, she's a talented singer as well). Hopefully, she'll keep the blond look - it suits her.

Veterans Newhart, Asner and Steenburgen are solid as ever, although Caan looks like his mind is on his "Vegas" role more than his work here - he never appears comfortable. Steenburgen is wasted -- she's such a fine actress, but she is given so little to do. Her mom in "Parenthood" is still a classic performance; she echoes that role here, but her onscreen time is limited. Veteran character actor Michael Lerner excels as a grumpy boss, and Amy Sedaris, Andy Richter and Peter Dinklage of "The Station Agent" all do wonderful jobs.

Mainly, this movie is fun and laugh-out-loud funny. There's nothing especially deep, and the message of the importance of family and the Christmas spirit has been done before in better movies, but "Elf" is impressive, becoming one of those rare family movies that adults can not only stomach, but enjoy as much as their kids. Favreau never dumbs it down, as do so many other family movies. "Elf" may not be inspirational, but it is fun, and that's a commodity in short supply in movie houses these days.

In the theater or home video?

This certainly works on the big screen, but this will work even better on the small one, with a plateful of Christmas cookies, a glass of eggnog, a fire in the fireplace and the whole family gathered around the entertainment center.

See cast, credit and other details about "Elf" at Internet Movie Data Base.