In Elf, Buddy (Will Ferrell) has been raised by elves. Specifically, he’s been raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart, playing a more colorfully costumed version of the doorman in Legally Blonde 2), such that the repeated sight gag has Buddy the huge human sitting on little Papa Elf’s lap, crushing his spindly, green-tightsed elf legs. This special-effected shot, like all those in which Buddy gallivants about the North Pole, has the disturbing effect of making Buddy look like the Attack of the 50-Foot Bozo. And so: a horror movie for Christmas.
Of course, Buddy’s not a monster, just a human, and there’s the rub for him and his elfin brethren. His backstory is related in about three minutes in Jon Favreau’s efficient opening sequence: a baby in an orphanage spots a teddy bear he covets, inside Santa Claus’ (Edward Asner) bag. Baby crawls in after the prize, emerges back out at the North Pole, and the elves take him on. Though he lacks requisite elfish talents — he’s slow to tack toys together and clumsy, not to mention oversized for all elfish accoutrements from pointy shoes to beds to toilets (to fatherly laps) — Buddy doesn’t catch on that he’s a misfit until some 30 years after his arrival.
Devastated, Buddy sets off in search of his real dad, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), in the great skeptical city of New York, by way of a stroll through the Lincoln Tunnel. (This leads to a few shots of Buddy in traffic, and one scene where he encounters a grumpy raccoon in the park — ha ha when the beastie leaps at him and he flops around on the ground with it on his neck, like Bela Lugosi and the octopus in Ed Wood.) No surprise, really, that dad is a curmudgeon who has no idea of the boy’s existence. Walter publishes children’s book, but he’s a big meanie who has no problems selling books with missing pages or insultingly dopey stories, so long as someone will pay cash money for them. Easily, the film’s most effective riff on such bald-faced kiddie merchandising comes when Walter hires a persnickety children’s author (Peter Dinklage) to conjure a last-minute plot for the obligatory seasonal tome. His preening and demanding are almost worth the price of admission.
That said, Walter is also granted the ethical out that he works for a man who’s even more mercenary and generally hateful than he is, and so it’s only a matter of time before he comes around to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas, or Buddy, or something that comes wrapped in green felt. Walter is married to the infinitely patient Emily (Mary Steenburgen), who is more than willing to take in a prodigal (step)son, even if he does think he’s an elf. Equally generous, after some prodding, is Walter and Emily’s son, Michael (Daniel Tay), in need of masculine attention because dad’s always working. Though he understandably sees Buddy as an embarrassment, Michael’s won over when the big guy demonstrates his supersonic skills with snowballs. Now armed with a big brotherish weapon against the local bullies, Michael is transformed. He’s compassionate and protective of his sibling, not to mention willing to confront his father on the old how-to-be-a-good-dad question.
Buddy’s disruptions extend to the working world as well, when he takes a job at Gimbels (shades of Miracle on 34th Street). Thinking that everything about the store’s holiday pretenses is real, he sets to ensuring their accuracy, spending a night in the store cutting snowflakes, setting up train sets, and ornamenting trees. Quite understandably, he’s instantly struck by his coworker, the glorious elf-costumed merchandise stacker, Jovie (the brilliant Zooey Deschanel). This means that her charming cynicism will be duly rearranged so that she too can join in the merriment and “believe” in Christmas. Moved when he overhears her singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (and Decshanel has a clear-as-a-bell voice, exquisite indeed), he approaches her at Michael’s urging, whereupon he announces that whenever he’s near her, his tongue swells up. How can she say no? That she and Walter relent just in time for Christmas, also the moment when Santa needs a little help from Buddy, means that everyone can come to an epiphany simultaneously.
Relenting is probably the best (or only) way to handle Buddy — for he is inexorable. Elf is punctuated with montagey interludes in which he acts out his elfness: he eats M&Ms and chocolate syrup on his spaghetti; pukes when he cavorts in revolving doors; remakes the entire floor’s Xmas display so it looks like the real deal; gets into a fight with the fake Santa when he won’t confess his true identity. This last upsets the unnamed manager (Faizon Love), the film’s most plainly put-upon worker, reduced here to sputtering comic relief.
Such comedy is strained, to say the least; even Ferrell’s usual hilarity — so fearless, so physical — is constrained by this overpowering sweetness theme. Stuck in between, not wholly elf or wholly human, not wholly adult or wholly child, poor Buddy only wants to belong. This cloying cuteness is compounded by New York Mayor Bloomberg’s proclamation (on the Today Show, no less) that 7 November is Elf Day, in appreciation of the holidays and New Line’s mighty money infusions. Crass and cunning: ’tis the season.