'Tis the season and all that jive; beneath the tree this first week of November you will find two films set during the final week of December, when sugarplums and candy canes go on sale at the concessions stand for all the good little girls and boys' parents to buy in bulk. While Love Actually, with its four-lettered language and frequent flashes of skin, may be for the grown-ups, do not think Elf is where you drop off the kids for their screening; Will Ferrell, carrying director Jon Favreau's bag like it weighs two pounds, is no mere baby sitter. Elf may be no more than a pleasant, amusing trifle, a grin that fades well before Thanksgiving, but it also will endure in the way all decent Hollywood-made Christmas fairy tales last if they're rendered with good cheer and goodwill. Certainly it fancies itself an instant classic, with its copious references to holiday immortals -- Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, the claymation of Rankin-Bass -- intended to suggest it not only borrows but also belongs.
With a cast that includes Ed Asner as Santa Claus and Bob Newhart as the elf who adopts a human infant and raises him as one of Santa's little helpers, Elf has the feel of a CBS-TV reunion movie; just where are Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury? Certainly, Elf's as inoffensive as prime-time programming; it's as cheery, too, a feel-good fairy tale with more happy endings than a back-alley massage parlor. Not even Amy Sedaris, Andy Richter and Tenacious D'er Kyle Gass as employees of a publisher of children's books can subvert the wholesomeness. Along with Upright Citizen Brigade's Matt Walsh (playing, uh, himself), they're pranksters at a 5-year-old's birthday party, throwing water balloons and pretending they're hand grenades.
Ferrell, recently seen streaking down Main Street on an Old School bender, spends the entirety of Elf in green tights and a pointy hat; it's his commitment to the costume this time that's truly amazing, transforming what could have been a sketch into something a wee bit more substantial. (The dude has silver balls.) Ferrell plays Buddy, a human amongst elves who eats nothing but candy and can't understand why he doesn't fit in the shower or on Bob Newhart's lap. He's as oblivious as he is useless, too big to build toys or make shoes, which leaves him nothing else to do except change the batteries in the fire detector and test defective toys. Still, it comes as a shock when he discovers he's not an elf at all, but a human whose daddy (James Caan) lives in New York City -- and is on the naughty list, to boot. So off he goes to Manhattan, where, Santa warns him, "a peep show doesn't mean they're letting you look at the presents early."
Favreau, maker of Made and reformed Swinger, has created a bizarro fantasy world in which the North Pole's populated by talking snowmen and animated penguins; says Leon the Snowman, voiced by Leon Redbone, "I was just rolled up and left out here." It's the kind of kiddy wonderland Henry Selick, of The Nightmare Before Christmas, would love -- a brightly lighted fantasia in which dark things lie just beneath snow-covered surfaces. And it feels more real than New York City, where Gimbel's is still open for business and evil cops live in a Central Park castle and ride through the night like headless horsemen hunting stray reindeer. It's also a place where Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous, The Good Girl) doesn't mind terribly much to find Buddy in the women's bathroom, accompanying her in a duet while she takes a shower; she's peeved enough to go out with him, after all.
There's nothing at all adventurous about Elf; it couldn't be more formulaic if it was cooked up in a chemistry lab. It goes for the obvious and lingers occasionally too long, never more so than when The Station Agent's Peter Dinklage shows up as a mean children's book writer and Buddy keeps referring to him as an elf, which sends the small man into an enormous, violent fit of rage. Elf's like Buddy himself, on a sugar high where everything seems enormously funny and sends everyone into fits of giggling and snorting. Elf plays too often like a first-timer's screenplay, because it is: David Berenbaum sold it on spec, and now finds himself polishing off old Disney product (Haunted Mansion, The Love Bug) to sell for the holidays.
You can, but of course, see the ending climbing down the chimney well before Christmas Eve: Santa's sleigh can't fly without a full supply of Christmas cheer, and Caan, as Buddy's biological father and a cynical publisher of books for the very children he can't seem to stomach, is the consummate Grinch. Will Buddy thaw his little black heart in time to propel Santa 'round the world? And will his daddy find a hit book in all this holiday fa-la-la? Do reindeers crap in the woods?
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.