Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Elf (New Line Cinema, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I wanted to run my recently acquired DVD of the 2003 Christmas comedy Elf, starring Will Ferrell as Buddy Hobbs, a human baby who stowed away in Santa Claus’s toy sack one Christmas Eve and was raised by Santa’s elves, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart — and the sight of him in the green tunic and yellow tights that are standard elf drag is weird enough in itself!) in particular. But he’s aware of the identity of his real (human) father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan, portlier than we remember him from his Godfather days but still an accomplished actor), a put-upon executive of a children’s book company who’s so out of touch with the Christmas spirit that he ships a book with two blank pages so anybody who reads it won’t know the fate of the pig and the penguin who are its central characters, simply because he doesn’t want to spend the $30,000 on a reprint. Walter lives with his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and their son Mike (Daniel Tay), and Buddy manages to find his way out of Santa’s kingdom at the North Pole and make it to New York City and into the Empire State Building, where he crashes his dad’s office and gets escorted out by security.

Though David Berenbaum seems to have assembled rather than actually written the script — there are plenty of references to other Christmas stories, including A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (much of the action takes place at Gimbel’s department store — which had already gone out of business when this movie was made! — and, like Santa in Miracle, Buddy points out all the mistakes the store’s decorators have made in their depiction of the North Pole) — he and director Jon Favreau have constructed a marvelous showcase for Ferrell’s antics. Elf is pretty much a one-joke movie — the joke being Buddy’s fish-out-of-water response to the normal human world — and I couldn’t help but wonder how Buddy was able to do things (like take his human-raised human girlfriend to dinner) that require normal human money when there was no evidence that he ever obtained any, either legitimately or otherwise — but at least the one joke is genuinely funny, the movie avoids any blatantly dirty gags (thank goodness) and there are some nice zingers. When Buddy redecorates the Gimbel’s North Pole to more closely resemble the real one (and makes a convincing replica of the Empire State Building out of Lego blocks!), the department manager (played by a corpulent Black actor named Faizon Love, who was born in 1968 in Cuba — though he looks older than that on screen — and was raised in Newark, New Jersey and in San Diego) immediately gets suspicious and thinks the Gimbel’s management has brought in a professional decorator and his job is in jeopardy.

The plot resolves itself through a gimmick Berenbaum seems to have ripped off from Peter Pan — it turns out that Santa’s sleigh is powered by a turbine engine someone in the elves’ workroom developed after there was no longer enough Christmas spirit in the world to make it go the old way (the idea is that now so few people believe in Santa Claus the sleigh can’t remain aloft just on Christmas spirit and reindeer power anymore), and the engine falls out of the sleigh on Christmas Eve night and lands in Central Park, stranding Santa there until Buddy can be summoned to re-install it. So Buddy’s girlfriend, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), implores the crowd surrounding Central Park (which the police have closed off and intend to send a horseback patrol to push the mysterious visitor out of there) to start singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to provide enough Christmas spirit to get Santa’s sleigh going before the horse-mounted park rangers catch up with him and either arrest him or just run him down. (It’s as close as they could get to “clap your hands if you believe in fairies” without getting sued by that children’s hospital to which Sir James M. Barrie willed the rights to Peter Pan.)

Eventually — as we might have predicted — Buddy wins his father’s love and Walter saves his job by publishing Buddy’s story as a children’s novel, and there’s a bittersweet parting scene as Buddy takes off in Santa’s sleigh and leaves Jovie behind (though Will Ferrell is hardly in Chaplin’s league in the pathos department!) as well as a nice gag in which Buddy’s (half-)brother Mike reads from Santa’s list (a large book bound in leather like a Gutenberg Bible) and tells Carolyn Hutton (Lydia Lawson-Baird), the newscaster who’s covering the event live for Channel 1, that what she’s told Santa she wants for Christmas is “an engagement ring, and for my boyfriend to stop putting me off and commit already!” There’s also a nice scene at the publishing company in which, desperate for a best-selling idea, they hire the eccentric, egomaniac writer Miles Finch (little-person actor Peter Dinklage), whom Buddy mistakes for an elf, and when Miles takes that as an insult and physically attacks Buddy, Buddy says, “He must be a South Pole elf.” Elf is a genuinely funny movie that’s well worth seeing — perhaps because it was aimed at a family audience (it was rated PG “for some mild rude humor and language”), it avoided the potty jokes of some of Ferrell’s other movies and was all the funnier for dodging the raunch — and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was.