I know “Elf” enjoys a huge cult following and tops many people’s list of favourite Christmas films. The story of a human who is accidentally brought to the North Pole and raised as an Elf, the adventure really begins when Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) decides to go out into the world and find his real father, who has been placed on the naughty list.
It’s a great premise and the cast, although somewhat eclectic, are good value in their roles, although some of them feel a little underwritten, probably to make way for the scenery-chewing performance from its leading man. Zooey Deschanel, James Caan and even Peter Dinklage’s great cameo are reasonably well served by the script but Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Tay are short changed as the rest of the Hobbs family.
The North Pole scenes are cute and cartoony but well observed, especially the nice touch of seeing the elves assembling real-world toys. Ed Asner makes a great grumpy Santa, neatly balancing out Buddy’s wide-eyed innocence. Once the action reaches modern-day New York, it begins to favour a series of comic set pieces for Buddy over a coherent story and while the antics on screen are amusing, the central tale of the redemption of Buddy’s real father, Walter Hobbs, feels tacked on as an afterthought. Indeed, Hobb’s eventual epiphany about the truly important things in life feels kind of abrupt, like they almost forgot they had to include it.
The dialogue, though, is clever and peppered with quotable moments and Will Ferrell gives us every last ounce of his manchild comedy schtick. There’s no denying the character of Buddy is very funny, although much of the humour comes at the expense of consistency. Buddy is a grown man who was raised by elves but once he arrives in New York, there are occasions where he behaves like a five-year-old child on a sugar rush, despite the fact that’s not how the elves themselves behave. He’s also viewed as slow and unproductive in the North Pole workshops yet is capable of the most fantastically intricate transformations in the space of a few hours overnight. There’s an attempt to handwave away the man-child behaviour but it still feels uneven to me. Innocence and optimism does not automatically equal childishness and stupidity.
Director John Favereau keeps things light and pacey, keeping the story on the move and preventing the unevenness from undermining the heart of the film, which is as big as all outdoors. Ultimately, the film achieves the remarkable by becoming better than the sum of its parts and despite its flaws, the whole thing hangs together surprisingly well. Like a Christmas tree decorated by toddlers, it’s uneven, garish, lopsided and all over the place but it’s also cute, charming, side-splittingly funny and undeniably Christmassy. Not quite the masterpiece that some would have it, but still a modern Christmas classic.