'Elf': THR's 2003 Review
"There's sweetness, but it's seldom cloying."
On November 7, 2003, Buddy met America. Jon Favreau's comedy, Elf, starring Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel, has since become a holiday staple for audiences. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
Having successfully demonstrated his big-screen comic chops with Old School, Will Ferrell again proves there is indeed life after SNL, playing an elf-reared naif who sets off from the North Pole for New York to seek out the biological dad he never met.
While the words "instant holiday classic" might be pushing it, Elf is at the very least a breezily entertaining, perfectly cast family treat. Actor-director Jon Favreau, working from a colorful script by David Berenbaum, has delivered just the right combination of naughty and nice, or, as the MPAA calls it, "mild rude humor and language."
That crowd-pleasing blend and Ferrell's irresistible performance will not only ensure that the halls of New Line will be decked out in plenty of green (as if the upcoming final Lord of the Rings installment hasn't already all but guaranteed that), but it's also likely to give a certain cat in a certain hat a run for his money this holiday season.
What it basically comes down to is this: How bad can a movie be that begins with a sullen-looking Bob Newhart clad in full elf regalia?
Newhart's Papa Elf provides the narration for this pleasantly fractured fairy tale about a little baby in an orphanage, who happened to find his way into Santa's sack of toys one Christmas Eve. The stowaway wasn't discovered until after the man in the red suit (played by gruff old Lou Grant himself, Ed Asner) returned to the North Pole and was subsequently raised by Papa Elf as his own son.
It soon became quite apparent that the child he named Buddy (Ferrell) was going to have trouble fitting in, given that he was growing at a rate that was roughly three times that of his workshop colleagues.
Ultimately Buddy is told the truth about his being an elf-made man and that his real biological father is alive and well and living in Manhattan.
A Scrooge-like workaholic children's book publisher, papa Walter Hobbs (James Caan) also happens to be a permanent fixture on Santa's naughty list. But that doesn't thwart Buddy, who travels to New York to introduce himself to Dad.
As babe-in-the-woods Buddy — a vision in green, yellow tights and pointy shoes — soon discovers, not only does Hobbs not exactly welcome his long-lost son with open arms, but Manhattan is in serious need of an injection of Christmas spirit.
It's jingling formula all the way, but Favreau (who makes good on Made, his 2001 directorial debut) and screenwriter Berenbaum (who also penned the Walt Disney Co.'s upcoming The Haunted Mansion), lend the story plenty of comic smarts. There's sweetness, but it's seldom cloying.
There's also the terrific supporting cast, which includes Mary Steenburgen as Caan's resilient wife and Zooey Deschanel as the jaded Jovie, who works with Buddy at the thoughtfully resurrected Gimbel's department store
But there would be no Elf without Ferrell, and whether he's trying to hopscotch his way across Broadway or attempting to navigate his first escalator, he always manages to work a rousing subversive element into his character's core innocence.
Visually, the picture celebrates the best of the genre. The North Pole sequences incorporate animated elements that pay direct tribute to those vintage Rankin-Bass specials, while cinematographer Greg Gardiner and production designer Rusty Smith favor old-fashioned, forced perspective techniques over CGI to create those size disparities between Buddy and the elves.
Aurally, John Debney's appropriately festive score has been supplemented with a generous selection of swingin' Yuletide tunes by Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Leon Redbone, while Deschanel, who joins Ferrell in an impromptu rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," reveals a singing voice that's a study in Keely Smith cool.
Bottom Line: Will Ferrell is hilarious in this delightful elf-out-of-water holiday confection. — Michael Rechtshaffen