"Elf" is an example of the good things that can happen when hipsters do it on the square. The fable of what transpires when a young man raised by elves goes back to investigate his human roots, it manages to be both genuinely sweet and just a teensy bit wised up.
Directed by Jon Favreau from a script by David Berenbaum, "Elf" returns to the hip but warm-hearted spirit of "Swingers," which Favreau both wrote and starred in. It brings sophisticated glee and a sense of innocent fun to what could have been a moribund traditional family film.
Making this pay off without winking at the audience is a difficult task, and "Elf" doesn't always feel all of a piece. But in "Saturday Night Live" alumnus and star Will Ferrell, the film has a guide who steers it unerringly over the bumpy patches.
Ferrell is exactly right as Buddy, who as an infant at an orphanage found his way into Santa's bag and became the first human to penetrate into the fastness of his North Pole workshop. Adopted by Papa Elf (an amusingly dry Bob Newhart), Buddy grows up convinced he's an elf himself, even though several factors point strongly in a different direction.
For one thing, Buddy, lacking a true elf's nimble fingers, might just be the worst toymaker in North Pole history, a self-described "cotton-headed ninny muggins." Papa Elf takes pity on him and lets him work on Santa's sleigh, which runs on Christmas spirit that's measured by the uncannily accurate Clausometer.
Then there's the matter of his size. At 6-foot-3, Buddy is bigger than your normal elf, a whole lot bigger, a size difference that director Favreau, determined to keep things old school, shows via the venerable technique of forced perspective rather than use modern computer generated imagery.
There is one area, however, where Buddy is an elf all the way, and that is in his bottomless good cheer. Despite having to wear the typical elf costume of bright green suit and conical hat over yellow tights and pointy shoes, Buddy radiates cheer like it's never been radiated before. He's always ready with a hug, even for angry raccoons, and when he says "I just like to smile, smile is my favorite," you know he's not just blowing smoke up Santa's chimney.
Since "Elf" is something of a one-joke movie, it's essential that Ferrell get this limitless innocence right — and he does. His Buddy, a cheerful combination of Stan Laurel and Tom Hanks in "Big," is an endearing elf Candide, a true naif who can't help but make the best of everything.
While this kind of attitude is fine for the North Pole, where Edward Asner's Santa is the only person allowed to get cranky, the challenge for Buddy and this film is to make it creditable in "a magical kingdom called New York City."
For, once he finds he's a human and learns that his mother is dead, that's where Buddy heads, determined to find the father who doesn't know he exists. "This is a golden opportunity," Papa Elf tells him like he means it, "to find out who you really are."
Not for nothing, however, does Buddy's father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), have a prominent place on Santa's naughty list. The Simon Legree of the children's publishing world, he's too busy repossessing books from kindly nuns and shipping out stories without the final pages to pay attention to his wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), or his 10-year-old son, Michael (Daniel Tay). Clearly a big dose of Christmas spirit is in order.
Ditto for comely young Jovie (the always welcome Zooey Deschanel). She's not a real elf, but even though she plays one in Gimbel's toy department, she is a tad on the disaffected side and in need of the kind of infusion of good cheer only the genuine article can provide.
Naturally, New York being New York, everyone is not happy with Buddy's attitude, which, as "Elf" illustrates, can be unexpectedly trying. A dwarf children's book writer ("Station Agent's" Peter Dinklage) gets furious when Buddy mistakes him for an elf, and a department store Santa goes ballistic when Buddy, alive to the impersonation, hisses at him "you sit on a throne of lies."
"Elf's" conscious employment of old-fashioned elements in the service of whimsical innocence extends to the use of the simplest kind of special effects to animate North Pole residents like a friendly Narwhale and Leon the Talking Snowman.
That genial creature is voiced by Leon Redbone, who collaborates with Deschanel on a sparkling duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that is the highlight of an eclectic soundtrack that includes Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," Ray Charles' "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and Wayne Newton's "Jingle Bell Rock."
Even at a brisk 90 minutes, "Elf's" single focus means it has to strain a bit to fill all its time, but director Favreau so wants this to succeed and Ferrell plays Buddy with so much goofy conviction that everything turns out for the best. As Papa Elf reminds Buddy, "some people lose sight of what's important in life. All they need is a little Christmas spirit." Coming right up.
MPAA rating: PG for some mild rude humor and language
Times guidelines: Mostly very innocent joking around
Will Ferrell ... Buddy
James Caan ... Walter
Bob Newhart ... Papa Elf
Ed Asner ... Santa
Mary Steenburgen ... Emily
Zooey Deschanel ... Jovie
Daniel Tay ... Michael
New Line Cinema presents a Guy Walks Into a Bar production, released by New Line. Director Jon Favreau. Producers Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki, Shauna Robertson. Executive producers Toby Emmerich, Kent Alterman, Cale Boyter, Jimmy Miller, Julie Wixson Darmody. Screenplay by David Berenbaum. Cinematographer Greg Gardiner. Editor Dan Lebental. Costume designer Laura Jean Shannon. Music John Debney. Production designer Rusty Smith. Art director Kelvin Humenny. Set decorator Johanne Hubert. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In general release.