I approach revisiting most of the comedies made in my lifetime with a degree of trepidation. Much like horror movies, comedies tend to lean on surprise and atmosphere (which I’m just realizing now as I type this), both of which are very ephemeral. Additionally, comedians tend to wear out their welcome rather quickly, and just mentioning their names can be eyeroll inducing. Then, when enough time has passed to forget (or at least forgive) the desperate last gasps of a great comedian, the original stuff is rediscovered and enjoyable in all its original genius.
It’s been fifteen years since Elf came out, and that is well in the comedic danger zone. Will Ferrell sort of won me over in Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back as well as number of his early performances which, if they didn’t make me laugh uproariously, at least felt like, man, this guy is really trying his heart out. (It’s an exercise for the reader to determine why or whether Ferrell’s efforts are more appealing than similar forgotten and truly desperate comics of the day like Tom Green.) And unlike a lot of comedians, Ferrell proved in many of his later roles that he could seem like a real human and not a stumbling pratfall machine.
But that’s not relevant here—or is it? Because the great mystery of Jon Favreau’s 2003 tale of a human changeling visiting New York City for the first time, is that it worked at all back in the post-9/11-Bushitler days and actually holds up pretty well today. No small part of that must be attributed to Ferrell’s earnest performance. A popular film with all the kids, this was the first time they had seen it in the theater and we all walked away in the Christmas spirit—which is what you want in a Christmas movie. (And probably why Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, since you just want to blow up terrorists afterwards.)
Director Favreau has a way of making more out of movies than is actually there on paper. This is not a great reason to rush out to see The Jungle Book or Cowboys and Aliens, but goes a long way to explain Iron Man (and in part the success of the MCU) as well as this movie. (Though The Boy and I both feel like his best and most personal film is Chef.) Elf is a sincere film, clashing up against an insincere culture, and it shows up the insincerity for the worthlessness that it is—thus it wins.
It’s a simple, corny film: Due to a Christmas Eve mix-up, a human mis-named Buddy (Will Ferrell) ends up living with the toymaker elves before discovering that he is a human. He journeys down to NYC to meet his real father (James Caan) that Santa (Ed Asner) informs him is on the “naughty list”. After about an hour-and-a-half of fish-out-of-water jokes, Buddy’s father sees the light and helps to save Christmas. Along the way, Buddy brings a little light into the lives of children, felons, his stepmother (Mary Steenburgen, Time After Time) and half-brother, as well as love to a cynical department store sales clerk (Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer, playing the normal one for a change).
The cast is nigh perfect, even down to the smallest supporting roles. Bob Newhart as Papa Elf. Faizon Love as the nervous department store manager. Michael Lerner as the Scrooge-ish publisher. Kyle Gass and Andy Richter as Caan’s toadying hack writers. Amy Sedaris as Caan’s chipper secretary. The great Leon Redbone in the role of the Burl Ives-style snowman (and doing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Deschanel in the closing credits). Hell, 83-year-old stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen is the voice of a stop-motion cub. Peter Dinklage—on the heels of his serious, moody breakout role in The Station Agent—is awesome as the hard-bitten primadonna master of kidlit.
The soundtrack really is perfect. It’s cool, with Louis Prima, Eartha Kitt and Ray Charles belting out classics over the comic montages (“Pennies from Heaven”, “Santa Baby”, “Winter Wonderland”, respectively). The score—that is the musical itself by frequent Favreau collaborator John Debney (The Stoning of Soraya M, The Passion of the Christ) has a nice theme and is otherwise competent if a little generic.
Even so, the film could be disastrous if the jokes were wrong. There’s a small amount of scatalogical humor. Most of the jokes that might be sleazy are defused with Buddy’s genuine innocence. The Boy and I felt that the really broad physical violence didn’t hold up that well. (I’ve often pointed out that, if you hate Will Ferrell, Elf is a movie where you can watch him get thrashed by Peter Dinklage.) It’s not that it’s bad, it just jangles a little bit somehow these days.
Most of the humor, though, is based on this Christmas-fantasy-elf clashing with 21st century society. In many ways, sort of amusingly, it’s far less cynical than, e.g., Miracle on 34th Street which is powered entirely by a group of self-interested small-minded people, while Buddy’s charm is basically to win people over to his point-of-view because it’s right. That sort of feels weird to type but it’s also sort of obvious: Spirit, Christmas or otherwise, is created by each of us for ourselves and others, so you really better not pout, cry, etc.
On the flip-side, 34th Street is a classic because it makes its argument very well, and Elf is a little weak in this regard. Caan’s transformation isn’t as supported as you might want, maybe because the actor himself is more convincing in the crustier role. But even here, the movie is saved by Favreau’s light touch: It’s not trying to be serious or deep, just genuine.
We all came out in a good mood, humming Christmas tunes. (Sort of like Die Hard, come to think of it.) Check it out—again.