THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


There are two holiday comedies I pretty much have to watch every year: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story. A few others I pop in every second or third year: Scrooged, the Grinch (the one with Jim Carrey). There are others still that I saw once and never intend to watch again, most notably those Tim Allen Santa Clause movies. This year brings – as most do - a new holiday comedy to theaters. It is called Elf and I’m certain this one will heretofore become annual viewing in my home. As Christmas comedies go, it ranks up there with the best of them.

Will Ferrell plays Buddy, an orphan raised at the North Pole by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). Buddy never figured out he was actually a human. Not even the substantial size difference between himself and the other elves was a tip-off. Santa Claus (Ed Asner), who was inadvertently responsible for bringing the infant Buddy to the North Pole in the first place, has helped keep the secret for a long time. Buddy finds out, however, and sets off to find his real father, who works in New York City.

When Buddy shows up dressed in full elf regalia at the Empire State Building, his father, children’s book editor Walter Hobbs (James Caan), doesn’t take his “son” seriously and shoos him out the door. Buddy gets a job at Gimbel’s department store (well, he doesn’t get a job so much as he shows up and everyone assumes he works there) where he falls in love with pretty co-worker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). She doesn’t believe his claims of being a real elf either, but she’s more receptive to his lovable goofiness than Walter is. As the movie goes on, Walter and Buddy do reconcile, with the father attempting to teach his son how to be normal. There’s also a late-film subplot in which Santa needs help saving Christmas.

The central joke in Elf is that even after Buddy learns he’s human, he continues to act like an elf because that’s all he knows. He continues to wear his green coat and yellow tights. He perpetually makes chains and snowflakes out of paper to decorate any locale in which he finds himself. He lives on the elfin diet, which includes four food groups: “candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup.” (That’s a great line.) Although it’s a one-joke movie, screenwriter David Berenbaum and director Jon Favreau find plenty of ways to keep the material fresh. Berenbaum’s script does it by constantly creating new scenarios to exploit Buddy’s elf-ishness. (One of my favorites involves him encountering his father’s new business contact - a “little person” whom he mistakes for a fellow elf.) Favreau does it by giving the movie a unique look. The scenes at the North Pole are done in an obvious fantasyland style clearly influenced by the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials we all remember as kids: “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The New York scenes, meanwhile, take the most cinematic city in the world and capture all the beauty it has during the holidays. It’s a brilliant approach, having a pseudo-elf roaming around such NYC traditions as the Rockefeller Center tree.

Of course, Will Ferrell is as important to the movie’s success as anything. He’s undeniably hilarious here. I’ve always admired Ferrell’s willingness to commit to his material. Even when the material is weak – such as those annoying Cheerleader sketches on “Saturday Night Live” – Ferrell dives in headfirst, which makes him a joy to watch. As Buddy, he plays a character who is eternally optimistic and cheery. There’s a very funny scene, shown in all the previews, in which a store manager announces that Santa is coming. Buddy, believing the guy means the real Santa, jumps up and down, screaming “I know him! I know him!” We don’t usually see elves portrayed in movies (not as main characters anyway), but we know they are supposed to be full of holiday cheer. It’s funny to see a gifted comic actor take that idea and exaggerate it to such an extreme. If the Academy Awards weren’t so biased against comedies, Ferrell might have had a real shot at a nomination.

The supporting players have been wisely cast as well. James Caan is simply inspired as Buddy’s father. The actor always presents such a no-nonsense, suffer-no-fools image that simply placing him alongside Ferrell in an elf costume is funny. But Caan also brings something else to the table: he makes a terrific straight-man for the star. All his looks of exasperation and embarrassment are spot-on. Zooey Deschanel (who has been so good as a supporting actress in pictures like The Good Girl) is very sweet in her role. For the romance between Buddy and Jovie to work, you have to believe that this young woman would somehow be charmed, rather than weirded out, by the elf. Deschanel hits that note perfectly. Bob Newhart can always be counted on for laughs. His facial expression as the much-bigger Farrell sits on his lap is priceless. And Ed Asner as Santa? Exactly.

Elf is funny, and it has a heart, but it’s not just a kids’ movie. Oh sure, kids will be cackling in the aisles at Buddy’s antics, as will the adults. What I mean is that the film doesn’t pander to kids. It has a sharp sense of humor that just happens to be appropriate for the whole family, and it has an edge as well. There’s no cutesiness at play here. The movie is meant to make you laugh yourself silly. There were times I was laughing so hard I had tears running down my face. That final subplot about saving Christmas maybe goes on a tad too long, but overall this is a great, great comedy. Like I said, from here on out, Elf is going to be a Christmas movie-watching tradition for me.

( 1/2 out of four)

Elf is rated PG for some mild rude humor and language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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