Will Ferrell as Buddy
James Caan as Walter Hobbes
Mary Steenburgen as Mrs. Hobbes
Zooey Deschanel as Jovie
Edward Asner as Santa Claus
Bob Newhart as Papa Elf
Daniel Tay as Michael Hobbes
Peter Dinklage as Miles Finch
Andy Richter
Kyle Gass
Artie Lange
Amy Sedaris

Thirty years ago, a human baby crawled into Santa Claus’ sack and was brought to the North Pole where he was adopted by an elderly elf. When he hits adulthood, “Buddy the Elf”, played by Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell, realizes that he’s different from the other elves, mainly because he’s a lot bigger. His adopted elf father tells him the truth and Buddy sets off to New York City to find his true father, a cranky executive (James Caan) at a children’s book publisher, who has no time for his current family let alone a seemingly psychotic son who thinks he’s an elf. Buddy’s mission is clear: get some Christmas spirit into his newfound father and get him to accept him into the family.

What Worked:
With that simple but solid premise, Elf begins a fun ride that combines some of the basic tenets of some of the best comedies and family films of the last few years. While the premise of a grown-up raised by elves coming to the big city would seem pretty dumb and obvious, it’s actually ingenious enough to lead to some rather funny moments. It also allows the movie to be cute at times and sweet as Buddy’s sugar addiction at others, making it an enjoyable crowd-pleaser from beginning to end.

The main reason the movie works is due to Will Ferrell, who has found his true calling with this movie. While there still is plenty of his normal schtick, this is a definite departure for him, as he plays a charming and likeable 3-year-old in the body of a grownup, greeting each new experience with awe, joy and wonder. It is almost as if he were channeling the child-like spirit of Andy Kaufman, and the role works for him in a similar way as Tom Hanks’ memorable performance as a manchild in Big. Ferrell also does a great job with the slapstick humor, making even the dumbest of jokes work with his great reactions and facial expressions. With Elf, Ferrell proves that he is indeed in the same league as some of the the masters of comedy, ready to join the ranks of Sandler and Carrey, as a solid comedic lead.

The gags are pretty obvious, mainly of the fish-out-of-water variety, either making fun of Ferrell’s size compared to the normal elves or his naivety while experiencing New York City and its residents for the first time. We get to see Buddy take on his first job-as a store elf, of course-fall in love for the first time and learn to bond with his new father. For the most part, the movie is made up of a series of short gag segments. Since it doesn’t dwell on one joke for too long, the humor never gets stale, and the story moves along at a brisk pace, always looking for new sources of humor. It’s a credit to director Jon Favreau, writer of Swingers, someone who you would not expect to be able to pull off such a sweet and innocent movie without completely losing older audiences.

The great cast adds suitable support to Ferrell’s na├»ve Buddy, with the most welcome presence being that of veteran actor James Caan, who is perfect as the crotchety father that doesn’t want anything to do with his overly excited crackpot son. It’s not much of a stretch for Caan, as he plays the same tough as nails character that he has for many years, but the rapport between the two actors is great. They play off each other well, and when Caan finally softens up, it works in a way that is rare for this sort of movie. It’s also hard to not enjoy seeing veteran TV actors, Ed Asner and Bob Newhart as Santa Clause and as Buddy’s adoptive elf father respectively. Although only on screen for a few minutes, Peter Dinklage, the breakout star of this year’s pleasant surprise The Station Agent, manages to steal the scene from Ferrell as an arrogant, height-challenged children’s book writer.

The last part of the movie has a surprising amount of action and the special effects are rather impressive, particularly the scenes with Santa and his sleigh, which seems to be a mix of models and CGI. It brings a new level to the movie which is much needed after over an hour of gags.

What Didn’t Work:
Elf is clearly intended as a holiday picture, and a lot of the scenes could have come directly from some of the sappiest holiday television specials and Christmas movies ever made. While Buddy is at the North Pole, he even interacts with a bunch of cutesy animated characters, like a talking snowman and penguin, something that makes the first twenty minutes seem even more silly and geared towards only the youngest of children. The problem is that you’re never sure if Ferrell and Favreau are paying homage to those Christmas specials or making fun of them, so it takes a little while to get into the movie. When Buddy gets to New York, the holiday movie blueprint is cast aside for more serious yucks.

Likewise, the plot is obvious to the point that you almost always know where the movie is going before it gets there. The ending is so sappy and saccharine that it’s hard not to let out a groan, but it’s not only expected, but almost warranted, in order for Elf to work as an effective holiday film, much like Bill Murray’s comedic Christmas Carol, Scrooged.

While Ferrell is hilarious, a lot of the jokes are as telegraphed as the plot. Far too often, the story devolves into the most basic form of slapstick, like Buddy’s fight with a department store Santa, or the gross-out humor that is far too common in this sort of family film. Frankly, Elf doesn’t need it, as it’s able to carry itself with its solid premise and Ferrell’s great comic timing.

Zooey Deschanel’s performance as Buddy’s love interest is the only one that really doesn’t work at all. She’s stiff-I’ve seen more spirited line readings by porn stars-and she doesn’t seem right for the part at all. The chemistry between her and Ferrell is nil and the entire love interest subplot seems blatantly contrived and easily the worst part of the movie.

Bottom Line:
Despite those few reservations, it’s almost impossible to not like at least parts of this movie, whether it be Ferrell or his supporting cast or some of the great gags inherent with a very clever comic premise. Elf is sure to put the Christmas spirit into even the staunchest of Scrooges, because heck, if Elf can win over this normally jaded and cynical reviewer, it’s sure to be enjoyed by kids of all ages. Who would have thought that a member of Saturday Night Live and the writer of Swingers could produce a family film that can really be enjoyed by the whole family?

Elf opens nationwide on November 7th. (Not to be confused with Elephant, a completely different movie that expands to select cities that same day.)