Boy meets elf 

A review of Elf

click to enlarge Will Ferrell as Buddy, the human raised by elves, and his biological father, played by James Caan.
  • Will Ferrell as Buddy, the human raised by elves, and his biological father, played by James Caan.

*Elf (PG)
New Line Cinema

Holiday movies, like everything else that falls between Oct. 31 and Dec. 25, seem to have morphed into a genre that ignores actual time. How else to explain that Elf and Love Actually, two certain holiday crowd pleasers, were released the first week of November while the cineplexes played trailers of Disney's Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy, due to be released on Thanksgiving Day?

It's all part of the holiday conglomerate marketing conspiracy of which, I confess, I have become so unaware that two weekends ago, while in Chicago, I was agog over the giant candy canes and other fabulous Christmas decorations in Marshall Field's on, yep, Halloween.

But Elf, with its unyielding good cheer and complete absence of canned irony, is so good-hearted it cannot be accused of holiday exploitation by virtue of simply being the first Christmas film out of the chute. This is a movie to get you in the mood, to lighten the burden of pressure that has become the long, extended Christmas shopping holiday. It's a wink of a film, designed to entertain young and old with classic visual tricks, surprising characters and a touch of sentimentality, spiced up with snappy dialogue and a quick pace. It's not a "great" Christmas film, but it's damn good entertainment.

Will Ferrell is perfection as Buddy, a 6-foot-3-inch human raised by Santa's elves in the North Pole. Buddy is a total optimist and a perfect innocent, unlike his doubt-filled adoptive father Papa Elf, played with trademark furrowed brow by Bob Newhart. Even Santa, played here with a hint of world-weariness by Ed Asner, is more of a realist than Buddy.

When Buddy learns that he's not an elf and that he has a father in New York City, he sets off on a chipped piece of an iceberg, "through the Candy Cane Forest, across the Sea of Swirly, Twirly Gumdrops," and eventually through the Lincoln Tunnel, to claim his place in the human world.

James Caan as Buddy's bio-father is the perfect Scrooge, a children's book publisher who's so cheap he sends out an entire shipment of the company's latest book missing its last two pages. Kids, he grumbles, won't notice. A workaholic, he ignores his wife and kid, creating a perfect opening for Buddy to step in and work his magic.

Zooey Deschanel gives a finely tempered performance as Jovie, Buddy's dippy fellow elf at Gimbel's, who recognizes his goodness even when he's on a rampage against a pseudo-Santa. "You sit on a throne of lies!" shrieks Buddy at the imposter, just before being thrown into the street by Gimbel's security. (When Buddy first meets and becomes enamored of Jovie, Jovie asks if he's coming on to her. No, he says, "it's just nice to meet another human who shares my affinity for elf culture.")

The antics of Buddy the small-town elf set loose in the big city provide most of Elf's many laughs. Buddy, as played by Ferrell, is so wide-eyed, so amazed by everything he sees, that we begin to see the city as he sees it -- as a giant, neon playground where a window sign advertising "World's Best Cup of Coffee" is, in fact, what it says it is, not just another dump serving bad warmed-over coffee.

Elf dares to be yet another story of how holiday spirit can redeem humanity, and it succeeds because its director (Jon Favreau) tells the story (scripted by David Berenbaum) with utter guilelessness, trusting that his leading man can pull off the role by simply playing it straight -- straight elf, that is.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

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