Imagine… a new band of superheroes made up of characters who were raised by inhuman species:

  • Princess Mononoke, raised by a wolf goddess!
  • Mowgli, hero of the jungle, raised by wolves!
  • Tarzan, another hero of the jungle, raised by apes!
  • Peter Pan, who was raised by birds! (It’s true. Read J.M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird.)

They would fight the Penguin, of course.

But who would be their leader, the one to make inspiring speeches, the one to keep them hopeful during their darkest hours?

How about Buddy, the boy raised by elves?

[The following is an amalgam of my original Looking Closer review and commentary I contributed to my Christianity Today Film Forum column on November 1, 2003.]

In case the title isn’t a big enough hint, take note: Elf is not a story about the birth of the Christ child.

I say that because some Christian media reviewers are lamenting the lack of Jesus in this movie. They would, of course, complain about irreverence if Jesus was in this movie.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s consider what Elf really is:

Elf takes place in that sugary realm of holiday myths about Santa, reindeer and (surprise!) elves. While its tone veers from childlike (A Muppet Christmas Carol) to childish (Christmas Vacation) and then way out into sheer absurdity (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure), it remains clearly a fantasy, one that tells [imagine that I am switching now into my Movie Trailer Guy voice] a formulaic tale about unconditional love, the value of wonder, the importance of finding one’s place in life, and the rewards of having faith in things unseen.

Fortunately for all of us, Elf is just funny enough that, after the whole family has made the trip to the shopping-mall cineplex to see it for the first time, you might find Mom and Dad sneaking back to the theatre on their own just to laugh their way through it a second time.

You might… that is, if Mom and Dad find Will Ferrell funny.

It offers 95 minutes of high-spirited, laugh-out-loud holiday silliness, and, in its endeavors to become a Christmas favorite, it avoids the usual bottom-of-the-joke-barrel banality that cheapens most SNL-based movies. But Will Ferrell is one of those Saturday Night Live comedians—the polarizing personalities who audiences tend to love or hate. If you find his man-child personas amusing, you’ll probably love Elf. 

It tells the story of Buddy (Ferrell), a grown man who works as a toymaker with Santa’s elves at the North Pole, thinking all the time that he too is an elf. Buddy doesn’t realize that he was born elsewhere, or that his real family lives in Manhattan. An accident “delivered” him to the North Pole when he was an infant, and jolly old Saint Nick (Ed Asner), unsure what to do with the baby, handed him over to the sullen, stammering Papa Elf (the perfectly cast Bob Newhart) for an education and a job. And now, Buddy’s an enthusiastic part of the team, even if he is beginning to wonder why his stature is so disproportionate to his peers.

When Buddy learns, finally, the reason that he stands out from the crowd, and discovers the explanation for his lack of elf-like talents, he sets off to find his real family. He arrives in New York and marches right into the office of his father, a Scrooge-like children’s lit publisher (James Caan). Needless to say, his arrival is not exactly welcomed, and the ensuing trials are traumatic for dear old Dad, baffling for the big “boy,” and a laugh-riot for audiences.

In spite of the outrageous premise, I’ll venture to guess that you too will find Ferrell’s performance irresistible. I was happy to suspend my disbelief as he bring his man-child whimsy into the middle of a surprisingly realistic Manhattan. Wait until you see him ignore Papa Elf’s advice about bubble gum, or his first experiences with crosswalks, rotating doors, or escalators. His courtship of a wide-eyed beauty (Zooey Deschanel) seems doomed to failure, but it’s surprising how much chemistry this goofball and his disillusioned date discover. Buddy’s simplistic views of life, in which people’s names are either on the Nice or the Naughty List, make for many memorable confrontations—his first encounter with a department store Santa may be the year’s funniest scene.

The North Pole episodes are also a hoot and a holler. Director John Favreau cleverly incorporates his human cast with the backdrops and puppets of those beloved Rankin-Bass Christmas television classics like Santa Claus Is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Even the old snowman narrator, formerly voiced by Burl Ives, makes an appearance. This makes for a unique collage of environments, in which Favreau makes use of some of the same forced-perspective methods that Peter Jackson employed so well to make men tower over hobbits.

Watching Elf, I caught a glimpse of how another recent Christmas movie packaged for family entertainment — Ron Howard’s ill-conceived How the Grinch Stole Christmas — might have been better. There’s no spooky or gaudy makeup, very few big-budget effects, and the story is full of simple setups that allow for high jinx that feel like the fruit of inspired improv. While both films star talented improv comedians who give the proverbial 110%, Elf is likely to inspire annual visits, where The Grinch seemed intent on annoying and exhausting audiences. Elf is an enjoyably modest, playful, low-stakes affair; it does so much with so little. The Grinch was a turkey overstuffed, overcooked, and drowning in sauce. (That wasn’t Jim Carrey’s fault—I maintain that his performance was outstanding in spite of his gaudy, overcrowded context.)

This flimsy Scrooge-redemption story doesn’t put on the weight it might have if a gifted screenwriter had imagined a more ambitious narrative. But frankly, I like Buddy just the way he is. Christmas movies are prone to being preachy, and sometimes a stack of highly decorative cookies is just the right thing in a season full of stress. It fumbles its way to a frenzied finale that feels more like a chore than a victory lap, but so long as Ferrell is onscreen, it’s fun.

The first time I saw it, I smiled and shrugged. Since then, it’s become a staple, a goofy ride on a carousel of holiday favorites. It won’t change you, but it might get you hooked on its frivolous high.

[And now I can’t stop thinking about the potential of a Buddy-focused force of Christmas-season superfriends. They just might save the world.]