Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: November 7, 2003
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Cast: Full Cast and Crew
Nine years after its initial release, “Elf” has become a holiday favorite for kids and adults looking for a fun film to watch during the Christmas season. At the time of its production, “Elf” featured several unknown quantities among its cast and crew. Will Ferrell was best known for his work on “Saturday Night Live” and had made some ripples with his role as co-star in “Old School,” but he didn’t have the box office clout he would achieve following “Anchorman.” Zooey Deschanel was a little-known actress whose most famous roles at the time had been in the cult classic “Almost Famous” and “All the Real Girls.” Director Jon Favreau was coming off of the successful indie films “Swingers” and “Made,” but had yet to become the blockbuster director who would make “Iron Man.”
“Elf” takes audiences straight to the North Pole, where Buddy the Elf (Ferrell) has been raised to adulthood by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). After years of failing at even the simplest elf duties, Buddy soon realizes that he is human and ventures off to New York City to find his real father, Walter (James Caan). Buddy soon realizes that life in the big city is very different from the life he left behind in the North Pole. His father wants little to do with him, and the city’s citizens are annoyed by his antics and unwilling to reciprocate his holiday cheer. Buddy finds a job at Gimbel’s, where he meets Jovie (Deschanel), a young woman who soon starts to believe his tales of talking snowmen and Santa Claus.
The film became a hit because it appealed to both adults and children. Its sugary sweet demeanor has an undercurrent of cynicism that melts away as the story progresses, allowing the audience to join Buddy in his quest to find his father and spread Christmas cheer wherever he goes. At the time of the film’s release, it had been some time since a holiday movie had captured the imagination of multiple audiences, with “The Santa Clause” and “Home Alone” being the previous two Christmas films to become crossover hits. Where both of those films had a dark sensibility, “Elf” carried its joy for the season on its sleeve, paying homage to the holiday movies of the 1930s and 1940s and the Rankin/Bass television productions of the 1960s. In short, it was unlike anything else in the theaters at the time.
Much of the movie’s success is due to Favreau’s direction. Even though this was his second directorial effort and his first for a major studio, Favreau kept everything clean and kinetic, providing the film with an energy that many of its holiday contemporaries lacked. He gave plenty of nods to Christmas movies of the past, from the presence of the snowman from “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the use of Gimbel’s as the department store in a clever tip of the hat to “Miracle on 34th Street.” Most importantly, the actors appear to believe in the story, which is a testament to Favreau’s ability to get the best out of his performers.
As Buddy the Elf, Ferrell had his first, and arguably, best-known acting role for children. Having just left “Saturday Night Live,” Ferrell was familiar to adult audiences but had yet to be introduced to children. By taking the man-child character that he would soon become famous for and tailoring it to younger audiences, Ferrell won over young fans who probably still watch his movies today. There isn’t an ounce of negativity in Ferrell’s portrayal of Buddy, making the character easy to root for without dipping into schmaltz or cheesiness. The script for “Elf” was originally written for Jim Carrey, but it’s hard to see how that actor could have topped Ferrell’s performance.
Every great lead should have an equal love interest, and Zooey Deschanel ‘s portrayal of Jovie matches Ferrell’s Buddy at every turn. Her wide-eyed, slightly cynical character is meant to match the audience’s initial reaction to Buddy. Slowly, her character lightens up and begins to appreciate the joy Buddy is trying to spread, and she joins him at the end in an attempt to save Christmas.
As a great Christmas movie for the entire family, “Elf” belongs on the shelf with classics such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” and “A Christmas Story.” Although Favreau, Ferrell, and Deschanel all later worked on bigger movies, their roles in “Elf” may be the most memorable.
Rating: 4 out of 5