Emerging from a long tradition of feel-good Christmastime features, Elf, which stars Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Ferrell, is a gut-buster of laughs, but little more.
Part of the monolithic challenge confronting Elf — and any other holiday film conceived in this cinematic era — is that it must find a way to stand out from well-loved and better-known classics. Either that, or it can hope to take its box office booty and run. Modern Christmas tales, on one level or another, aspire to achieve that timeless status attained by the movies that inspired them. It’s A Wonderful Life is still seen as pretty darn wonderful, no matter how many times it’s rerun on television.
Unfortunately, Elf breaks no new ground. Although it smartly pays tribute — with some humorous effects — to the old favorites, such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, it becomes a mostly predictable rehash of the Christmas-spirit-conversion story that made names like Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim so unforgettable.
Elf’s true saving grace is that it provides laughter. In coming to terms with his deficiencies as a toymaker, Ferrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, discovers that he is actually a human, adopted and raised by Santa and his family of little helpers and enchanted forest creatures.
His hilarious adventure begins as he sets out to find Walter Hobbs (played by James Caan), his biological dad. Dad is a corporate type who works for a book publishing company, and has been placed on Santa’s “naughty list,” due to his lack of compassion for the less fortunate and lack of time for his family. When Buddy shows up at Walter’s Manhattan office filled with hopes of ice-skating and tickle fights with his old man, he’s sorely disappointed. Walter is reluctant to accept that the stranger in a pointy hat and curly-toed shoes is sane, let alone his firstborn.
Nonetheless, the happy ending for this lovable reject can be seen coming a mile away, as predictability emerges as one of the script’s weaknesses.
Memorable supporting performances are given by Bob Newhart as Papa Elf and Faison Love as the uptight male department store supervisor, oddly named Wanda.
All told, Elf is undeniably cute, but not destined to become a Christmas classic. Nevertheless, children will love it.
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