There are phrases that strike horror into the embittered hearts of film critics. Phrases like "SNL alum," "Christmas movie" and "man dressed as an elf."
When such phrases come together in describing a single film, a hush falls upon the bars and meatpacking houses where critics refresh themselves after grueling matinees, and few dare raise their heads from their double meat-and-tonics to whisper the dreaded words: "heart-warming."
Such a confluence of portents surrounds the film Elf, which features not only Will Ferrell acting with the unbridled enthusiasm of an overgrown child or pre-war Bush cabinet member, but also Ed Asner as Santa Claus. Yes, it's the first time a true Marxist-Leninist has donned the bleached beard, black belt and blood-red britches of the jolly elf and home invader.
Based only on the previews and trailers, Elf would appear to be the worst film of the year. Strangely, the actual film is nowhere near this bad. It's even a decent, if shallow and trite, Christmas film that I'm sure the tiny moppets of Anytown, U.S.A. will enjoy in the way those who suffer from the inability to form long-term memories enjoy the same episode of Rhoda each time they view it.
The basics of Elf are well-explored in the animations of Rankin Bass and the epics of ancient Sumeria. In short, there is an outcast who must go on a quest to find his true identity and establish his value to the world and to Santa Claus.
The aforementioned Ferrell plays Buddy, a man-child who was adopted as an infant by Santa Claus. Raised by elves at the North Pole workshop, he finds that his enormous height and inability to produce more than 80 Etch-a-Sketches a day sets him apart from his magical, toy-making brethren. Thus, he heads south in search of his true father, that he might hug him and bring him Christmas cheer.
Now, you would expect that Buddy's father would turn out to be a man full of Christmas spirit who never neglects his family, a man who would never consider working on Christmas Eve. How wrong you would be! In fact, Buddy's dad is so unChristmasy that he is even on the naughty list. So unChristmasy that his younger son never gets to see him, nor does his wife enjoy his regular company. So unChristmasy that he is actually portrayed by James Caan. Evil!
When Buddy gets to New York, where his dad lives, he enjoys all the standard New York tourist fare: He frolics around, eating gum off the streets; he whirls about in revolving doors until he pukes; and he goes to Gimbels department store in search of Christmas happy good times.
He also seeks out his dad, who, shockingly, upon seeing someone as ugly as Will Ferrell dressed in an elf suit and singing tunelessly, "You're my dad; I love you; I came from the North Pole to see you, dad!" calls for security and has Buddy the Elf ejected from the building.
This creates what we in the movie business call "tension" and "plot" and "the recycling of every other Christmas story ever made ever." Nonetheless, somehow Buddy worms his way into his father's good graces and spreads his sugar-coated love-hugs around.
So powerful is the naïve love that Buddy the elf spreads that even his father's 12-year-old son, Michael, comes to love him. In a moment sure to be remembered by lazy scriptwriters everywhere, Michael chastises his workaholic father by shouting, "Dad, Buddy cares about everyone, and you only care about yourself." Aww! Isn't that cute! Kind of?
You can basically imagine the rest of the plot yourself. There's nods to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Christmas Carol, Frosty the Snowman and Triumph of the Will. There's also a romance between Buddy, played by 36-year-old troglodyte Ferrell, and a woman played by 23-year-old enchantress Zooey Deschanel. Because it's a fairy tale, see, where the ogre gets the princess.
In spite of all these horrid elements, Elf winds up being a reasonably decent Christmas film. It's kind of like a hot dog: When you look at what goes into it, it's pretty scary, but the end result is tasty, if not exactly nourishing. There are even some cult-favorite actors lurking in the bit parts. Amy Sedaris is essentially wasted playing a secretary, but Bob Newhart has a juicy role as Buddy's elf-dad, and rising indie star Peter Dinklage does an excellent turn as a children's book writer whom buddy mistakes for an elf.
Ultimately, Elf is a children's movie, and in that regard, it succeeds. It's not like kids are so well-versed in film and literature that they'll be bothered by how derivative Elf is, nor are they so jaded by the loss of civil liberties and the erosion of public trust in the government that they can't enjoy watching a man in tights hug a raccoon. So bring the young'uns along and let them have this last glimmer of hope before they learn that there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, true democracy or hope for the future. And God bless us everyone.