In Elf, Will Farrell is larger than life.
Well, his character, Buddy, is larger than all the other elves at the North Pole. A lot larger. Like three times larger. But that does not stop Buddy from trying to be the best darn elf in Santa s workshop.
This is a good thing, because were it not for Farrell, Elf would be one long advertisement.
Legos, Lite Brites, Pop-Tarts, Etch A Sketches are thrust into our consciousness with such frequency that it wouldn t have been surprising to see Farrell wearing a sponsor s banner, much like race cars are decorated with logos.
But he doesn t. What he does wear is a green hat and coat, yellow tights, and black curly-toed shoes, which should have been one long sight-gag, except that by the time the movie winds to a close, it seems natural for the man who would be elf.
Buddy is an orphan who, as a baby, inadvertently crawls into Santa s sack and is taken to the North Pole, where he is adopted by Papa Elf and grows to manhood.
He tries hard to be a team player, but Buddy just doesn t fit in. He can t make quotas in the toy workshop and working quality control frightens him. Papa Elf is forced to tell him the truth: His real parents are human. His mother died when Buddy was an infant, and his father never knew he existed. The good news is that his father is still alive and living in a place called New York City. The bad news is that Dad, a guy named Walter Hobbs, is on Santa s Naughty List.
“Some people,” Santa tells him sadly, “just lose sight of what s important in life.”
With a snow globe of New York for a map, some advice from Santa, including where to find the best pizza in the city, and the love of Papa Elf, Buddy sets off to find Dad and a place in his world.
This is going to be harder than Buddy realizes. Dad is a little short on ethics and a lot short on time for his wife and 10-year-old son, Michael. He s not about to make a place in his life for a crazy man in an elf costume.
Much like Brendan Fraser did in George of the Jungle, Farrell becomes Buddy. He has respect for the character, he believes in it, even as he becomes involved in scenes that evoke groans of disgust from the audience. (Elves, apparently, have different ideas of table manners than humans do.) He is utterly guileless and innocent and believes the rest of the world is like that, too.
Farrell is given great support by the rest of the cast, including James Caan as Walter, who has the Scrooge role and makes sure that Elf s syrupy sweetness is kept in check. Ed Asner gives Santa a bit of an attitude, which is a welcome surprise, and as Papa Elf, Bob Newhart is, well, Bob Newhart, and we wouldn t want him any other way.
Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Tay, who play Walter s wife and son, don t have much to do except to react to Buddy, and Zooey Deschanel plays Jovie, a department-store elf with whom Buddy falls in love.
For a story that has a predetermined outcome (this is, after all, a holiday movie), David Berenbaum s script holds some pleasant surprises, including tips of the hat to Burl Ives and The Lord of the Rings.
But as much as Elf is funny and sweet, it is also constantly frustrating. Just when you re ready to fall under its spell, here comes another toy or food or whatever. Product placement, not Christmas spirit, becomes the order of the day. It s enough to make you put the advertisers on the naughty list.