Saturday, December 24, 2011

Elf Movie Review: A Modern Christmas Classic

Jon Favreau wanted his Christmas comedy Elf to become a Christmas classic. Actually I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t yet. It has all the elements needed to establish it firmly in the canon. The reason I say Favreau wanted that is because it looks like he went out of his way to give it the look and feel of other classic holiday fare from both film and television. In this unusual and often uproarious story of a human raised by North Pole elves who goes to New York City seeking out his real father, Favreau’s direction keeps the comedy coming at consistent intervals while also injecting the right amount of sentiment. He never pushes the sappy stuff too hard, but it’s strong enough to give you a good feeling. David Berenbaum’s screenplay deserves credit for the straightforward plotting, some damn good jokes and an appropriate level of holiday spiritedness.

Elf takes it for granted that Santa Claus exists. He is not a child’s fantasy perpetuated by parents, but a real guy whose team of elf helpers prepare his toys and work on his sleigh, which is itself powered by Christmas spirit. Or it used to be anyway. Nowadays it requires a rocket booster because people don’t believe like they used to (possibly due to a dearth of Christmas classics produced since the television special “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in 1970). One night a little baby in an orphanage crawls his way into the toy sack, unbeknownst to Santa. Not discovered until arriving back home, the baby is given the name Buddy, adopted by Papa Elf, and grows up to be Will Ferrell. After failing to be any good at meeting quotas for toy making, Buddy learns he is not – to his great horror – an elf. This prompts a journey of self-discovery and to meet his dad.

Normally I’m not a Will Ferrell fan. He provides a brand of comedy that is far too self-aware. I don’t like comedy that announces itself as funny. But in Buddy, he’s found a character that suits his talents and style. Because Buddy is a complete naïf, Ferrell can play over the top without begging believability. When he mistakes a man with dwarfism (Peter Dinklage) for an elf, he unleashes a string of otherwise horribly offensive comments, but which in context are just about the funniest thing the movie has to offer.

To help ensure the movie’s status as a perennial classic (even if it hasn’t paid off yet), Favreau uses traditional effects in the North Pole sequences. To show the size difference between Buddy and the other Elves he employs forced perspective, a method that keeps the film looking real and not doctored by computers. The North Pole scenes also rely on the visual style of those old TV specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the aforementioned “Santa Claus,” which used stop-motion animation. Elf does use some CGI to render the animation, but giving the objects and characters the movements of stop-motion creatures. The effect is to take us back to those TV specials we enjoyed as children. To me that look just feels like Christmas. Additionally, the casting of Ed Asner as Santa and Bob Newhart as Papa Elf help hearken to the period of those classics. Both TV stars in the 60s and 70s, Asner and Newhart call to mind another time and place.

That’s all well and good for providing the right look, but a real holiday classic earns its place through feelings of good cheer, warm memories and Christmas spirit. The real message of Elf is all about that. It’s about a man whose path has crossed both worlds and brings a sense of revival to the people, most importantly to his father (a delectably crabby James Caan), who is so busy with his professional life that he’s losing his teenage son, a fact that has not been lost on his wife (Mary Steenburgen), who reacts with surpassing understanding at the news that her husband has an adult son they never knew about.

Of course Buddy’s journey wouldn’t be complete without a little love interest. She comes in the form of the radiant beauty of Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, a “North Pole” staffer at Gimbel’s department store where Buddy exposes the sitting Santa as a man sitting “on a throne of lies.” Their first date can go in the history books as one of the weirder movie dates ever committed to celluloid.

Elf succeeds because it doesn’t ever pander for either cheap laughs or cheap sentiment. It’s not tacky, it’s not kitsch, and it’s never mean-spirited. Ultimately it’s the performances that really sell it. The cast of Ferrell, Deschanel, Caan, and several others make us believe in their characters, and play it strong enough that we might almost, if we really want to, believe in Santa too. Or to at least return to a simpler time in our lives when we did believe in such fantasy.

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