By B. Francis Morlan
Every holiday season there seems to be a new attempt at making another holiday movie classic. Few ever succeed. This year's entry is a whimsical tale called Elf, starring Will Ferrell as Buddy the elf.
Buddy is technically not an elf. He is an orphaned baby who somehow finds his way out of his crib and into Santa's sack his first Christmas. Santa, played by Ed Asner, unknowingly takes Buddy back to the North Pole and he decides to keep him. Why Santa doesn't decide to raise Buddy himself is never really explained. Instead he is raised by a bachelor elf played by none other than Bob Newhart.
Buddy, of course, grows up somewhat abnormal in the elf world. He's big and he just doesn't quite get the hang of being an elf. Finally the truth surfaces and he embarks on the adventure of his life to New York City to find his biological father.
When you consider all the possibilities, this should have been a classic. Lou Grant as Santa Claus? Priceless. Bob Newhart as an elf? Oh, the delicious possibilities. Will Ferrell as a goofy orphan? Stop, you're killing me. But in the unsolicited words of a 9-year-old stranger I followed out of the theater, "it's crap". The premise -- tired and predictable though it is -- is enough to tell a good story. But this film never quite gets there.
What makes this movie all the more painful to watch though are the great lengths the makers go to in re-creating magic from the large and small screen of Christmases past. Buddy's life at the North Pole is taken right out of the "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" Rankin and Bass classic of the 1960s. Elves who sing, wear pointy hats and talk in squeaky voices all look the part. The Burl Ives-esque snowman who befriends Buddy looks like he's ready to pitch a Norelco at any moment. Clearly the makers of this film did their homework.
But the makers are banking on pure nostalgia, sight gags and an incredibly weak story and script to endear viewers. None of it works.
Plainly speaking, Buddy is an idiot. Oh, he can rebuild a complex jet engine that Santa inexplicably has to have attached to the bottom of his sleigh but he can't avoid trashing a fake Santa in a department store. Buddy longs to find his biological father -- but he cannot eat anything without drowning it in maple syrup and marshmallows. Scenes of Will Ferrell choking down syrup laced spaghetti and letting out extended belches hardly classifies this as a holiday classic.
Buddy does find his father, played by fairly straight by James Caan, and endears himself to just about everyone except the old man. I won't bore you with the predictable details of the inattentive-father angle played by the writers but let it suffice to say that this movie proves that James Caan isn't funny, Mary Steenburgen can't sing and Will Ferrell isn't stretching much to play a clueless elf. The film relies on tried and true formulas so prevalent in modern holiday tales: all parents are dumb, only kids believe in Santa, the police are the bad guys, and the mystical "Christmas spirit" rules the outcome of any story. If this film had any original thought they went to great lengths to hide it.
The obligatory love story -- so central to these weak attempts in new holiday movies -- never gets off the ground. Buddy spends a very short time working as an elf, of all things, at a department store. There he meets a sweet singing sourpuss played by Zooey Deschanel. What she sees in the silly galoot is anyone's guess but by the end of the movie they end up locking lips. They aren't exactly George and Mary Bailey.
Elf will never be a holiday classic. Will Ferrell isn't really to blame -- either he was paid to play himself or they dramatically altered the script to fit his particular brand of slapstick. There are flashes of hope when he sings an unintentional duet with Deschanel and when he comes to work at the office with his biological father. But the short jokes aimed at a midget who he mistakes as an elf are lame and the fact that the only person he ever really irritates in New York City is James Caan makes this more of a farce than fantasy.
I had no expectations for this movie based upon the advance previews I had seen. Nevertheless I was disappointed in that the film was worse that I feared it would be.
Santa Claus, the elves, the North Pole, etc are all revered symbols of the season. It offends me that today's Hollywood movie makers can't adequately convey humor and respect in the same effort. The story could have been a lot more fun and may have even packed an emotional wallop if some consideration was given to even a basic seasonal message. But the season depicted here is merely a backdrop. It is something to play against, to mock and to tease. Christmas is shallow enough in the real world. Why promote that in a movie?