- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

A short title that heralds a tall hero, “Elf” may turn out to be the first lucrative syllable of the holiday movie season. However, it will need to be forgiven a considerable amount of slipshod execution — and at least one major casting miscalculation — in order to confirm Will Ferrell as an irresistible Big Silly and an emerging asset for the big screen.

A “Saturday Night Live” fixture for seven seasons, Mr. Ferrell sustains a deadpan infantile masquerade as Buddy, an orphaned human raised as an oversized elf in Santa’s Workshop. His foster dad, sublimely embodied by Bob Newhart, was a kind but less than informative mentor. Belatedly apprised of his true origins, about 30 years after crawling into Santa’s bag one fateful Christmas Eve, Buddy treks from the North Pole to Manhattan, where every impression bedazzles him.

Despite a boundlessly affectionate nature, he is an unwelcome rebuke to his biological dad, a hardhearted children’s-book publisher called Walter, portrayed so slackly and humorously by James Caan that he never leaves enough room for the obligatory Scrooge change of heart.

Mr. Caan’s character and temperament are so out of step that you begin to wonder if there was an alternate script in which Papa Elf accompanied Buddy to the big city, providing a certain cushion for the awaiting intoxication and culture shock. The initial comic juxtaposition of Will Ferrell and an elfin Bob Newhart seems to promise more interplay. As a result, you tend to resent the footage wasted on Mr. Caan’s lack of rapport.

There’s a playful artificiality to the North Pole setting, which is vaguely reminiscent of the tackier Christmas cartoons about Santa and Rudolph and the usual denizens. Mr. Ferrell looks very funny stepping onto an ice floe or conversing with a narwhal in that environment.

The city is a little spottier in the hands of director Jon Favreau and his associates. Central Park provides Buddy with an admirable location to demonstrate his snowball-throwing prowess soon after arrival, but it breaks down entirely during a labored finale about getting Santa (Ed Asner, believe it or not) airborne.

It is fun to share the pretense that Mr. Ferrell can do overnight makeovers of the Gimbel holiday decorations and bake Christmas cookies like an elf possessed. Buddy takes up residence with Walter, his wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and their improbable late-onset offspring, an alleged 10-year-old named Michael (Daniel Tay). Much as one appreciates Miss Steenburgen’s Christmas spirit, it would be easier to envision Walter with a trophy second or third wife, perhaps pushing 35.

The coincidental release of “The Station Agent,” in which Peter Dinklage has a principal role, should enhance his fleeting appearance in “Elf.” He plays a conceited author who gets offended when Buddy mistakes him for one of Santa’s helpers. An honest mistake from Buddy’s perspective.

Mr. Ferrell’s best bits may neutralize a veritable shopping list of misjudgments. I think he gets Buddy in a nutshell when he answers Walter’s office phone with the greeting “Buddy the Elf! What’s your favorite color?”

Don’t be surprised if it becomes a national tagline this Christmas.

**

TITLE: “Elf”

RATING: PG (Fleeting comic vulgarity and sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by David Berenbaum. Cinematography by Greg Gardiner. Production design by Rusty Smith. Costume design by Laura Jean Shannon. Music by John Debney

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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