Elf is a prime example of a movie that shouldn’t, under any circumstances, work. A comedian mugging it in a family movie? That always works out well. A sequence where the main character spies on a woman in the ladies locker room? Creep central. A lead character so optimistic and spunky should be aggravating. Instead, it’s a treat of film, one of the very best features centered around the holiday of Christmas.
Now, how can I talk about this feature without mentioning it’s star? Yes folks, let’s take a gander at Will Ferrell as Buddy The Elf. Having been raised by elves at the North Pole his whole life, Buddy is entranced by every aspect of the human world, including nuances we find mundane, once he arrives in New York, hunting for his father. Ferrell gives Buddy this sort of vibrant life, this spirit to embrace anything and everything that crosses his path that is critical in making the film work. On repeat viewings as an older person, I appreciate how thoughtful the depiction of Buddy not able to fit in in either the elf or human world is. He’s too much of a slow worker and overly large when he’s with the elves, while surrounded by humans he’s too naive, not to mention his diet leaves much to be desired among his family of human beings.
That sort of duality adds a layer of tragedy to the proceedings, with his attempts to fit into the world of humanity having more than a note of futility to them. Even with that kind of layering the character, laughs still come at a relentless speed, especially in scenes with Buddy adjusting to normal society. His encounters with escalators, a little person and perfume spray never get old even after 11 years of rewatches. Something else repeat viewings have made me endear to is Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, a girl that Buddy falls in love with. Jovie could have solely been some trophy for Buddy, but the film actually gives her a personality that nicely contrasts with the titular character, with her being all too aware of the constrictions reality. Helping her character out immensely is how Deschanel and Ferrel have believable chemistry in their scenes together, lending more sweetness to a film lovably stuffed with that particular word.
Also making waves in the supporting cast is James Caan, playing Buddy’s dad. He makes for a splendid spoil for Ferrell, with his grouchy demeanor as a workaholic dad, like Deschanel’s character, bouncing off Buddy in terrifically entertaining ways.. The role of “Father Who Works Too Much” is a common trope in live-action family features, but putting a grown-man raised by elves to bounce off of that archetype instantly changes things, especially since the father has to learn to spend time with his kids throughout the film instead of solely during the climax. That’s the kind of innovation and thoughtfulness that can be found in large quantities within Elf’a screenplay, penned by David Berenbaum.
One place many don’t find as much quality in is the climax, a portion of the feature I’ve seen many disparage. Honestly though, I love that finale, and I’d be lying greatly if I said it hasn’t choked me up from time to time. The world of New York City that Buddy encounters is so richly entertaining and developed that flashing back to it and various supporting characters at different locations resonates in a superb manner. Even better though is how the ending manages to show how much Buddy The Elf has changed things, with the joyous Christmas spirit he carries with him at all times managing to infiltrate everyone in that city that fateful Christmas Eve. As they all harmonize about Santa come to town, it’s a wonderful reminder of all the euphoria the season can bring both within the film and reality.
I find it fascinating Jon Favreau directed this one, considering what kind of highs (Iron Man, Chef) and lows (Cowboys & Aliens) he’d find in his career. Elf may be his best movie though, it’s balance of humanity and humor managing to create an unworkable premise into a film that’s already a holiday movie staple. That’s a status it should have no trouble retaining so long as feelings of joy and wonder work their way into the holiday season. Maybe Elf shouldn’t have worked, but in case you couldn’t tell dear reader, I find it very, very, very, very, very much does.