Elf artwork by Mister G


Elf artwork by Mister GDirector: Jon Favreau / Screenplay: David BerenbaumEditing: Dan Lebental / DP: Greg Gardiner / Music: John Debney

Cast: Will Ferrell / James Caan / Bob Newhart / Ed Asner / Mary Steenburgen / Zooey Deschanel / Daniel Tay / Peter Dinklage / Amy Sedaris / Kyle Gass    

Year: 2003


Elf & Safety

Jon Favreau’s second feature, Elf would establish this one-time acting & writing buddy of Vince Vaughn, as a director in his own right, capable of delivering on two fronts. First, that he could wrap a shoot on-time & to-budget, thanks to careful shot planning. Second, that despite a lacklustre (though ‘high-concept’) script from David Berenbaum, Favreau had an eye for what a general audience might be looking for in a ‘modern’ Christmas movie; moreover, what should be in such a movie, for it to stand a chance of becoming a perpetual classic…

His first stroke of luck, was in the casting of Will Ferrell as Buddy, the Elf. Originally linked to Jim Carrey, the script took so long to be green-lit, that Carrey had long-since passed by the time Ferrell signed-on: he proved an inspirational choice. An intelligent comedic actor, Ferrell had risen through the usual crop of TV-shows and supporting roles in comedies such as Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), but it was during his time at Saturday Night Live, where he refined a style of physical clowning, lacking both guile and embarrassment. Ferrell reminds me of Andy Kaufman to a degree, in being a student of comedy, who’s aware of where the laughs are in otherwise ‘vanilla’ scripts; how it’s not always the obvious gags that play best. To his credit, Favreau gives him space to improvise here, with sets, props & other actors all foils to this modern clown. 

It would be Ferrell’s first lead role; it wouldn’t be his last.

GlassesThe movie begins with Bob Newhart’s narration setting the scene as a droll Papa Elf. A charming title sequence follows. Drawn & animated in the style of vintage Disney, it harks back to simpler times (ironic, then, that Favreau’s current employer is the House of Mouse). These elements (i.e. a talking Narwal) blend with live action. Despite being deliberately simplified and ‘under-designed’, they generate sufficient charm & whimsy to carry the film through its later phase in the Big Apple.

As Papa Elf explains, we see an orphaned baby crawl unseen into Santa’s sack of goodies, as the man-in-red (a gruff-but-jovial Ed Asner) enjoys a plate of cookies left out for him; only noticing his cherubic stowaway when he arrives back at North Pole HQ after a successful shift. Even when we first catch sight of Ferrell, now all grown up but still believing himself to be an Elf, it still works. It’s still charming. It still works stylistically, too. The Elf’s workshop looks like a desaturated Alpine chalet that plays well, against their primary-coloured outfits. Also worthy of note, are the ‘forced-perspective’ tricks used to fool the eye into believing that Ferrell really IS a giant among his people.

Favreau showed that he was a student of film here, by choosing to design shots that would create the illusion in-camera. CGI would’ve made short work of layering Ferrell into the workshop, but it wouldn’t have been true to the film Favreau wanted to make and kudos to him for that. As a result, shots were achieved by age-old tricks such as having Ferrell close to the camera, with his fellow actors both lower-down and further-away. By choosing precise camera angles, both fore & back-grounds could merge seamlessly without the need for post-processing. It was a technique almost as old as cinema itself, but Peter Jackson had revived it a few years earlier for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, using it to compose shots of Gandalf with the shorter Hobbits, so it’s not inconceivable that Favreau took his cue here. 

And then… Buddy leaves it all behind to visit New York, in-search of his ‘real’ father, at which point, the film’s charm soon begins to seep away.

GlassesHand-on-Heart, I KNOW the movie’s an outright fantasy. That logic shouldn’t play a part in how it unfolds. I get it… Or at least, that part of my brain that does fantasy, gets it. The other part – the ‘Bad Cop’ side of my brain – started whistle-blowing, the moment I saw Buddy arrive in town, in-costume with nothing… No bags. ID. Money. In a green Elf costume… Don’t judge me, Dear Reader, but I struggled to get beyond this.  

Buddy visits his Dad, Walter (James Caan giving it his full scrooge) in-search of a fairytale reconciliation. 

At his office. 

In the Empire State Building, because 

After being mistaken for a singing telegram, Buddy sings his tale of woe to his bemused, sceptical dad, who has him duly kicked-out. From there, he ends-up at a large department store and is dragooned into its toy section. In his second case of mistaken identity that morning, he’s assumed to be ‘one of Santa’s helpers’. It’s here, that he meets a diffident young woman, Jovie, played by a gamine Zooey Deschanel. Their slow-burning, almost-relationship will be an important aspect of Buddy’s time in New York, though trying to balance the premise of a man-child raised as an erogenous-free Elf, with a tentative step towards ‘normality’ is difficult to reconcile. Tom Hanks, lest we forget, was here before with Big (1988); if Elf proves anything, it‘s that there really IS nothing new in movies… 

While Jovie’s purpose is to round-out Buddy’s stunted sense of id, the plot never loses sight of his purpose for being there: the son needs to find rapprochement with his long-lost dad. Walter’s somewhat nebulous ‘job’ is – I think – that of a children’s book editor, though because he’s such a crabby grouch, he cuts ever-bigger corners in his indifference to the job, with the result that sales dip ever-lower. 

GlassesFrom the off, we know that Walter’s going to reach a crisis point, with redemption (a story based on Buddy’s life) his inevitable salvation. To get there, Walter must go through his own version of the Kübler-Ross Change Curve. First, there’s Information (‘I am your long-lost son.’ And also an Elf.) This is followed by Denial (‘What do you want? Money?’). Anger (getting Security to throw Buddy out on his ear). Exploring (unearthing his old photo album, Walter stares at the same photo of he and Buddy’s late mother, that Buddy gave him). Direction follows (Walter’s young son, Michael, is the catalyst to bring them together) before, last of all, Acceptance (Walter tells Buddy that he loves him). So slavishly does the script follow this pattern, one might even call it ‘Metro-Gnomic’… 

The final reel’s all about Santa’s return on Christmas Eve, (aboard a pimped-out, crash-landed sleigh; don’t ask) and a happy reunion for all concerned, before an icky (and needless) coda ushers-in the end titles. Somewhere in there, Favreau manages to parody not just Jackson’s own Black Riders from LOTR, but the famous Patterson-Gimlin ‘Bigfoot’ film from 1967; mis-steps both, in a film otherwise devoid of obvious references. Again, the ‘Good Cop’ side of my brain, wants to believe & generate sufficient ‘Christmas Cheer’ to power-up the busted ‘Clausometer’ and get the grounded sleigh airborne… But the ‘Bad Cop’ just wants to thud against the nearest wall…

For all that, the movie’s pacy. Scenes never outstay their welcome. Love or hate him, Ferrell is a revelation in the part, proving himself capable of headlining such nonsense like a modern-day Jerry Lewis; he runs rings around an uncomfortable-looking Caan who, by the time he came to set and saw what he’d be up against, was probably thinking only of the cheque. Little wonder, that Ferrell would emerge as a proper movie star on the back of this role.

In the end, Favreau DID know how to make a modern fairytale: one of the tricks, is to use the bare minimum of product placement or telling details, as they will only date the film in the future. The only recognisable toy here? Etch-a-Sketch: and that’s been around long enough by this point, to live outside the culture as an evergreen artefact; same as the Empire State Building. Its very familiarity in the culture, is why it’s here: an anonymous glass-walled tower would just be forgotten, whereas King Kong once swatted biplanes from its pinnacle! 

GlassesFor all the positives, the film’s internal logic is unforgivably broken. In just one morning, Buddy catches Jovie showering at work and (creepily) duets with her. He then ‘sleeps’ in the store’s window, where he’s spotted by Walter. Inspired, he turns-up at Walter’s office with a boxed gift of ‘something special’ (actually, some naughty night attire) then returns to the store, to be in-position for ‘Santa’s’ arrival at 10am… Err, no 

In addition, I counted three sequences, assembled from footage shot guerilla-style, of Ferrell in-costume, interacting with unsuspecting New Yorkers. When I learnt that Favreau had shot these on the crew’s last day in New York, it dawned on me that, in all likelihood, he’d done so on-realising that their inclusion would pad-out otherwise flat sequences. For instance, Buddy’s arrival in the city would’ve been a thematic and tonal brick wall, without Ferrell’s clowning to soften the transition from fantasy to reality. Besides, if I wanted to see a movie, set at Christmas, in New York, that blended aspects of fantasy with reality, I’d always plump for something like Trading Places (1983) or A Miracle on 34th Street (1994); movies that aren’t afraid of exploring the city’s capacity for generating delight, even at its grimiest. By contrast, Elf’s bland, processional narrative merely strings-together opportunities for Ferrell to shine.    

GlassesThat Ferrell humanises such thin fare is undeniable, which is probably why the project lay undeveloped for so long: the producers were just waiting for the ‘next’ Jim Carrey to come along. They caught Ferrell at the right time. And he was cheap… But then, Ferrell’s not about the money. This is the man who reputedly turned-down $29 million to make Elf 2; he might be a joker, but Mr Ferrell is no fool…

And Favreau? Along would come a pair of Iron Man movies and glory. Treasure. Disney would open its vaults, from which he’d choose Walt’s last animated feature – The Jungle Book – to remake as a blend of live action & CGI. There’s more coming in that vein, but in 2014 he’d write, direct & produce Chef, his most personal film to-date. On the surface, it’s about a top chef who quits the rat-race and opens a food truck in an effort at rediscovering his original, long-lost passion, though one can read so much more in such personal material. 

It’s easy, therefore, to view Elf as the moment when Favreau – and Ferrell – both stepped on to the treadmill. It’s refreshing, therefore, to report that both have since managed to step-off, step-back and remain grounded.

In the final analysis (and in defiance of its critics), Elf appears to have transitioned to ‘Classic’ status, just as Favreau hoped it might… After all, what do we REALLY know?

This place reminds me of Santa’s workshop, except everything smells of mushrooms and everyone looks like they want to hurt me.


  • Andrew Marshman
    January 3, 2019 at 01:00

    I thought you would tear this movie apart and reduce me to tears but looks like some festivities have revealed your hidden warm and fuzzy side and given a glowing review. You have somehow made an in-depth critique of a festive family film, how is this possible? You are worthy of much praise!

  • Mark S
    January 22, 2019 at 14:48

    Great review, but I do feel here that you’re fighting against your inner Christmas Grinch! That being said, there are loads of weird moments and missteps in this film, and yet it has, as you mention, it has become somewhat of a Christmas classic.
    You’ve already touched on the weird shower scene followed by the sleeping in the window scene – simply no sense here at all – and also that James Caan, working at a failing publisher, happens to have his office in the Empire state building. On that note, for a long time I wondered if James Caan was great at acting a character that was befuddled and confused at what was going on in his life, but now I wonder if James Caan was simply befuddled and confused at what was going on in his own life. I also find the post-room sequence problematic – “grown child” gets drunk – hilarious? And right at the end when Buddy starts reading from his own book to a group of transfixed children I can’t help thinking: “this book sounds terrible”. Finally, what about Mum? Nothing to say or feel towards her?
    But then again… I can’t help smiling at Walter (James Caan) and Emily (Mary Steenburgen) having a serious conversation whilst sitting in a room festooned to the limit by snowflake paper chains. I also laugh every time at the placing of the star on top of the tree, the fight with Santa, the snowball fight, the selection of food and drink that Buddy enjoys, and many other slapstick moments. Unlike you I actually like the Central Park Rangers – it’s so ridiculous I find myself laughing at it, again on every viewing, and the sentimental, sugary singing on live tv is classic Christmas movie fare.
    In the end, I think its heart is in the right place – there’s plenty of Christmas fun here, lots of humour, and enough going on to ignore the missteps. Already watched it plenty of times with the kids, and after an 11 month break I suspect we’ll be watching it all over again. And again. And…

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