Dir: Jon Favreau. US. 2003. 97 mins.
Elf is a Christmas comedy that's as sweet-natured and goofily amusing as its title character, a gangly innocent played, in his first solo-starring role, by in demand former Saturday Night Live funny man Will Ferrell. Looking to get a jump on the extended holiday season, New Line launches the film in the US on November 7, a slot taken to lucrative effect last year by The Santa Clause 2. Approaching that sequel's domestic total ($139.2m) seems unlikely for this relatively unassuming family offering, but with an aggressive promotional campaign behind it Elf should be capable of a profitable theatrical run before flashier competition arrives in the marketplace (and it should enjoy a very healthy afterlife on video and TV). Independent distributors will have a tougher time selling the film in international territories, where Ferrell's SNL work, and his co-starring turn in this spring's domestic success Old School, will have less recognition value.
Ferrell's Buddy is a human who was given up for adoption and raised, after a Christmas Eve encounter with the big guy in the red suit, by one of Santa's toy-making elves. Realising that he doesn't truly belong at the North Pole, the grown up - but still childlike - Buddy sets off for New York to track down his real father. Dad (Caan) turns out to be a jaded children's book publisher who doesn't have much time for his wife (Steenburgen) and present son (Tay) let alone for a weirdo in tights and a pointy hat. In the end, of course, Buddy helps everyone experience the true spirit of Christmas and in the process provides the film with a pleasantly effective lump-in-the-throat climax.
Actor-director Jon Favreau, whose only other feature directing credit is crime comedy Made, seems at first like an odd choice to steer such family-oriented material. But it's soon evident that part of Favreau's task was to temper the story's warm and fuzzy themes with a hip retro feel epitomised by some vintage-style stop motion animation sequences and a soundtrack of jazzily performed Christmas standards.
In keeping with the retro feel, the film makes limited use of CG effects, relying instead on forced perspective to show the towering Buddy trying to fit in with his natural born elf pals. Production designer Rusty Smith gives the elves' North Pole home a stylised look and an unusual, muted colour scheme.
When the action shifts to New York, Favreau does a capable job balancing the adult themes - Buddy's relationships with his new family and a prospective girlfriend - against comedy geared largely, though not exclusively, towards a kid audience.
Ferrell - whose slew of upcoming projects includes Starsky And Hutch, Woody Allen's Winter Passing and Bewitched - inhabits his role with impressive skill and confidence. With his lanky frame garbed in vibrantly coloured elf gear, he delivers some very funny bits of physical comedy as Buddy stumbles through the unfamiliar urban landscape. And with his deadpan expressions he gives the character a naivety that is touching and comic by turns.
Caan does sterling work in the film's major supporting part and the cast also includes veterans Bob Newhart and Ed Asner in small but enjoyable roles (as, respectively, Buddy's adopted elf father and Santa Claus). An underused Zooey Deschanel (The Good Girl) appears as Buddy's potential love interest.
Prod cos: New Line Cinema, Guy Walks Into A Bar
US dist: New Line
Intl sales: New Line International
Prods: Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki, Shauna Robertson
Exec prods: Toby Emmerich, Kent Alterman, Cale Boyter, Jimmy Miller, Julie Wixson Darmody
Scr: David Berenbaum
Director of Photography: Greg Gardiner
Prod des: Rusty Smith
Ed: Dan Lebental
Costume des: Laura Jean Shannon
Music: John Debney
Visual effects supervisor: Joe Bauer
Main cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay, Edward Asner, Bob Newhart