Elf Opens Nov. 7

It was the first weekend in October, and already the Christmas lights were up in New York City. I was in town for the Elf press junket, where journalists would screen the movie and interview the actors, the director and other key individuals involved.
With Will Ferrell’s reputation for sophomoric humor in such goof-fests as Zoolander and Old School, I was pretty sure this wasn’t the kind of movie you could take Mom too (at least my mom, anyway). I was wrong. Jon Favreau’s Elf, starring Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen and Ed Asner, is a family-friendly comedy that has the warm, nostalgic feeling of a new Christmas classic in the making. Not just another candy confection spewed out for the masses during the holidays, at its heart, it’s a story about a son’s quest for his father’s love, and that’s what makes it stand apart from other Christmas-themed movies, that are either crass, corny or just plain unoriginal. That’s not to say it isn’t hilarious. Picture the towering Ferrell in tights navigating New York City streets, or eating mounds of spaghetti topped with candy and maple syrup, and you have an idea of the mix of reality and absurdity that infuses every scene.
Ferrell plays Buddy, who as a baby, crawled into Santa┬╣s sack of toys one Christmas eve, and was accidentally transported to the North Pole. Raised by
Papa Elf (Newhart) he assumes he is also an elf, despite the fact that he is so much bigger than the elves he works beside in Santa’s workshop. Once Buddy discovers his true identity as a human, he sets out for New York City to find his real family.
Favreau, a New Yorker who made his mark in the independent cult classic film Swingers (which he also wrote), is a smart, clever man who clearly has a fondness for his hometown as well as the old Christmas classics. The low-tech production and sets utilized in the early scenes at the North Pole are a nod to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, giving the movie an instant familiarity. (The high-tech CGI moments come later.)
The cast is solid, from lead to bit part, but Ferrell is the star, and Favreau wisely gives him plenty of room for the slapstick moments he made famous during his stint on Saturday Night Live. But those moments are played out with a measure of restraint. The goofier the gag, the more Favreau downplays it with smart editing and offset camera angles, keeping the movie from dissolving into an SNL skit gone wrong.
Caan, as Buddy’s father, is disapproving and harsh, a sharp contrast to Ferrell’s wide-eyed innocence. But Ferrell is so sincere in his approach to the character, the audience can’t help but root for him. And because fantasy and reality are so well blended (much like Big, with Tom Hanks), it seems
entirely reasonable to believe that Buddy will ultimately find the love he is searching for.
As the father of two small children, it’s not surprising that Favreau, known for his independent filmmaking, took on this mainstream project, which he
calls “family friendly without being a parent-punisher.” While the studio pressed for a racier film with a PG-13 or even R rating, Favreau fought to make a film he could watch with his own kids, and prevailed. He explained to reporters that his hope for Elf is that it will become a favorite Christmas classic, played on TV during the holidays year after year for families to enjoy. I hope he gets his wish.


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