Missed Magic

'Elf' tries really hard - Will Ferrell is particularly engaging - but it lacks the spark of a true classic.

November 07, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Elf tries so hard to be a holiday classic, to be a sweet-natured, charming little piece of holiday gloss, it's tempting to declare it so and simply go with it.

But such calculation rarely translates into genuine sentiment, and while Elf succeeds at being a humorous little trifle - thanks largely to Will Ferrell's go-for-broke exuberance as the title character, a human raised as one of their own by Santa's elves - it doesn't capture the essential holiday spirit necessary to become a true classic.

Still, let's give credit where it's due. The film belongs to Ferrell, so beloved by fans of Saturday Night Live for both his abandon (he's willing to do just about anything) and his ability to make even the most vacuous personality somehow appealing (remember his cheerleader, or any of his other clueless personas). As Buddy, towering above his brother and sister elves (but somehow never noticing), Ferrell is utterly guileless and perpetually of good cheer.

Whether sitting on his "adopted" father's elfin lap, working with toymaking tools obviously made for much smaller hands or sleeping in a bed more appropriate for a dollhouse, Buddy accepts and celebrates his lot. Of course, what's not to love? He's grown up in a place where the only mission is to make toys and keep Santa's belly fat, his nose bulbous.

Ferrell embraces the role as though he's been preparing for it his entire career (maybe he has), and things only get better when the storyline has him discover that his real father is alive and living in New York City. Determined to connect with the real family he never had, Buddy (yellow tights and all) hits the Big Apple and quickly sees it for what it is - the world's biggest toy store, except that most of the toys are free. He spins joyously around and around in an office-building revolving door, enjoys the free chewing gum he finds stuck to various lampposts and railings, hitches rides on the backs of fire engines. And when he discovers Gimbel's department store and its big Christmas display - hey, life is good!

Of course, things don't stay so neat and tidy. His dad (James Caan), who's got dollar signs where his heart should be, isn't exactly with the holiday program; in fact, he's on Santa's naughty list, a situation Buddy hopes to rectify. At first, the old man is appropriately horrified, but soon, under Buddy's relentless good cheer, even his curmudgeonly heart begins to melt a bit.

Elf is best when Ferrell is on- screen, relishing his character's fish-out-of-water status. But it stumbles when genuine emotion is called for; a subplot involves his dad's wife and young son, who strive mightily to overcome the man's emotional shortcomings and welcome Buddy as just the shot of goodwill he needs. But the setup is so conventional, the outcome so pre-ordained, it's tough working up any rooting interest in their predicament.

There's also the winsomely jaded Zooey Deschanel as a department-store elf who falls for Buddy, precisely because he's everything her calculated world-weariness won't let her be. Her time onscreen is entirely too short; the more interesting film would have chronicled their relationship, which seems more fraught with piquantly comic possibilities than anything else in the film.

Elf's supporting cast includes an engagingly droll Bob Newhart as Buddy's surrogate elf-father and Edward Asner as a weary Santa Claus, fed up with the world's lack of Christmas spirit. Both contribute to the movie's considerable charm, but neither they nor anything else raise it to the level of magic.

Elf

Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel

Directed by Jon Favreau

Rated PG (some mild rude humor and language)

Released by New Line Cinema

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score ***

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