[Screen It]


(2003) (Will Ferrell, James Caan) (PG)

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Comedy: Raised as an over-sized elf, a human travels from the North Pole to NYC to meet his biological father who doesn't know he exists and is in desperate need of some Christmas spirit.
Long ago, on Christmas Eve, a baby in an orphanage climbed into Santa's (ED ASNER) gift sack and made a surprise trip to the North Pole. Raised by Papa Elf (BOB NEWHART) and with his human heritage kept secret from him, Buddy (WILL FERRELL) grew up thinking he was an elf just like everyone else, except for his enormous size and inability to assemble toys as quickly as his counterparts.

He eventually learns of his true identity, however, with Santa telling him that his real father, Walter Hobbs (JAMES CAAN), is a book publisher who lives in New York City and is on the famous naughty list. Undeterred by that, Buddy then sets out on a long trek to meet the father who doesn't know he even exists.

With the North Pole as his only point of reference, Buddy is shocked and amazed by the big city, but he's not as surprised as Walter is upon meeting his good-natured, but childlike adult son for the first time. Walter's wife, Emily (MARY STEENBURGEN), readily accepts him into their family as her stepson, but ten-year-old Michael (DANIEL TAY) initially isn't as friendly.

Buddy wants to spend time with his dad, but ends up mistaken by a Gimbles department store manager (FAIZON LOVE) as one of his Christmas workers. There, he meets Jovie (ZOOEY DESCHANEL), a disillusioned young woman who hates her job and is bored with life.

As Buddy tries to fit into his new surroundings, he constantly gets in his father's way. With Christmas around the corner and Santa suddenly needing help due to an energy drop-off caused by diminished Christmas spirits, Buddy and his new friends set out to save the day.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
One of the many things my parents taught me as a child way back when was to be polite, gracious and thankful for any gift I received. That was particularly true on birthdays and anytime around Christmas when the holiday spirit was supposed to replace or at least temper any Scrooge-like feeling toward the giver and/or gift.

Considering it's nearing that time of year and recognizing the obvious good intentions, I assume I'm supposed to cut writer David Berenbaum (who's also penned the upcoming "The Haunted Mansion") and actor turned director Jon Favreau's Christmas comedy "Elf" a bit of slack. After all, the filmmakers simply want to give us a light, funny and warmhearted present that they hope we'll enjoy. For that, I would like to say, "Thank you. It's great. What a pleasant surprise. It's just what we all needed."

Now that such politeness is out of the way and I can say how I truly feel, the thoughts that come to mind are "What were they thinking?" "It doesn't fit (our cinematic needs)" and "What a lame gift." Okay, perhaps when I saw this offering I was on movie overload and wasn't particularly looking forward to seeing what appeared to be a really bad idea.

It's not unusual, however, for such dread and/or lowered expectations to yield a surprise of some sort, be it a few scenes, some performances or even the entire film. Alas, an in true holiday form I must state, "Bah humbug!"

Of course, a great deal of one's acceptance and/or enjoyment of the film will lie squarely on whether you think actor Will Ferrell ("Zoolander," "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back") is a comedic god or not. There's no denying he has an obvious fearlessness when it comes to putting anything and everything into his work and literally and figuratively letting everything hang out (as he did in "Old School").

Many, however, seem to mistake reckless abandon for brilliance, thus putting Ferrell on a pedestal among the greats of comedy. While only time will tell where he ultimately stands, I can safely state he's nowhere near the top yet. Viewer opinions, however, will obviously vary wildly on that matter. That includes a certain core audience demographic that thinks anything he does is golden, a point proven by watching and listening to them reacting to his antics here.

Granted, some of his physical comedy bits, expressions and delivery of dialogue are amusing and even occasionally funny. Yet, he and/or Favreau ("Made") don't know when to put a good thing to rest, resulting in many gags and comedic elements going on way too long. Without the comedic skill - that only time will bring - to further the comedy or put an imaginative twist on it, the material feels juvenile at best (rather than clever and/or imaginative) and thus becomes repetitive and redundant.

The screenplay doesn't help matters. Welding the redemptive holiday theme (that started with Dickens and has fueled most such films since then) to the standard fish out of water-cum-outsider plot, the script is clunky from the start. It also fails to achieve or maintain any sort of comedic momentum, what with being weighed down by the leaden contrivances and clichés.

Following some overused and thus run into the ground visual gags showing Buddy's immense size compared to the "other" elves (using what appears to be forced perspective), Favreau and company unleash the oafish protagonist on NYC. Borrowing from a long tradition of similar offerings from the likes of "Being There" to "The Beverly Hillbillies," the film has Buddy trying to make sense of the big city via his sheltered and childlike, but good-natured mind.

Being a holiday film, there's little doubt that such qualities will eventually touch the resident scrooge of the story. James Caan ("City of Ghosts," "Mickey Blue Eyes") phones in that part here, no doubt realizing the lame way in which his character and the rest of the film have been conceived and then set into motion. The comedy is supposed to stem from Ferrell's character progressively irritating Caan's, but viewers are the ones who are likely going to end up feeling the abrasion.

The likes of Bob Newhart ("Legally Blonde 2," "In & Out"), Ed Asner ("The Animal," "The Bachelor"), Mary Steenburgen ("Sunshine State," "Life as a House"), Daniel Tay ("American Splendor") and Zooey Deschanel ("The Good Girl," "Almost Famous") inhabit various supporting roles to varying degrees of success. Yet, none of them looks like they're really into what they're doing, a point that only exacerbates the artificial feel the film can't shake.

While there are some occasionally amusing moments both before and after Buddy leaves the North Pole, the film really begins to fall apart and becomes increasingly insufferable once he meets his dad and infiltrates his life.

Those who adore Ferrell and his style of comedy may think otherwise (as might very young kids who won't notice or mind the clunky nature and various shortcomings), but this film just didn't work very well for me. Call me Scrooge if you will, but I think that "Elf" comes up short in far too many ways, despite the good intentions and (mostly) family friendly content. It rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 28, 2003 / Posted November 7, 2003

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