Skip to main content

I'm sorry that I ruined your lives and crammed eleven cookies in the VCR.

Elf
(2003)

(SPOILERS) Much as Jon Favreau deserves plaudits for making Iron Man’s success look easy, his achievement with Elf was even more unlikely. A Christmas movie that manages to be sincere without also being mushy, a comedy that’s incredibly silly but doesn’t stray from the point (as Will Ferrell movies have a tendency to do, God bless his freewheeling improv) and a romance that kindles even though composed largely of bullet points (thanks enormously to Zooey Deschanel’s patented manic elfie dream girl).


Buddy: Ow! Son of a nutcracker!

Favreau came to the material, which had been knocking around for about a decade, with a clear set of ideas. He rewrote the David Berenbaum (The Haunted Mansion, The Spiderwick Chronicles, er, Lucas’ Strange Magic) screenplay, pushing its darker tone down from PG-13 to PG, making Buddy a lighter character en route. He also embraced practical effects, desirous of evoking the aesthetic of TV Christmas specials of yesteryear, complete with the seams showing. So, forced perspective was used for the North Pole, along with the bewilderingly perfect decision to use stop motion animation. CGI was largely eschewed, Favreau claiming it was only used for snow (although I’d hazard the Santa’s sleigh sequences required some degree of compositing).


He also brought with him an evident willingness to use the older generation of comedy (TV) legends, with Ed Asner and Bob Newhart bringing a winningly inclusive vibe as Santa and Papa Elf respectively. The latter’s deadpan narration is the perfect scene-setter, detailing his adopted son’s appearance at the Pole (via Saint Nick) and the decision to utilise the services of elves in present production (gnomes drank too much and trolls weren’t toilet trained).


Buddy: I’m a cotton-headed ninny-muggins!

The tester for a movie like this is how well the supporting cast play off the comedian lead, though. Will Ferrell’s idiot man-child shtick is a lot more guileless and endearing than many (Adam Sandler, for example), and one couldn’t imagine the prevailing innocence carrying with Jim Carrey in the role (he turned it down, although he did later star with Deschanel in The Yes Man). Indeed, while Carrey has a tendency to overwhelm his movies, Ferrell can almost disappear into them at times (you can’t imagine Carrey in a Woody Allen film).


So there’s an inevitable gamut of excruciating idiot moments, as adult Buddy fails to realise he’s human, continuing to perch on Papa Elf’s knee as if he’s a fraction of size, arrives in New York (complete with Tootsie-esque crowd shot) and pays attention to some instructions (“Don’t eat the yellow snow”) but ignores others (picking discarded gum off railings and eating it), an entirely predictable escalator gag and much food-based humour (including a truly impressive belch, albeit not supplied by Ferrell himself). The biggest wins, however, come from interactions with others failing to appreciate Buddy’s unique perspective.


Manager: Hey! There’s no singing in the North Pole!

Mistaken for an employee of Gimbel’s department store, Buddy proceeds to stress out the manager (Faizon Love) with a frenzy of secret overnight decoration in anticipation of Santa’s visit the next day, but is most disappointed to discover – in a nod to Miracle on 34th Street – that Santa is a disreputable fake. Ferrell’s improvised indignation unsurprisingly carries a not dissimilar tone to berserk putdown metaphors in Anchorman (“You sit on a throne of lies!”; “You stink!”; “You smell like beef and cheese, you don’t smell like Santa”). Later, drunk on what he thinks is maple syrup added to his coffee but is in fact alcohol, he makes a new friend (Mark Acheson, only 26) in his father’s publishing firm’s mailroom and ends up breakdancing.


Buddy: I didn’t know you had elves here.

The most uproarious of his encounters is Elf’s most legendary scene, as Buddy happens upon the now ultra-famous Peter Dinklage (as children’s author Miles Finch, willing to sell a few ideas for cash-in-hand payments) and marvels at his familiarly diminutive stature, to the horrified embarrassment of all concerned, except for Dinklage, who is simply livid (“He’s an angry elf”) and proceeds to start beating on Buddy (“Call me an elf one more time”; “You’re an elf”). As with all the best moments here, they rely on Ferrell’s co-stars playing it dead straight in response to his lunacy (“He must be a South Pole elf”).


Buddy: I can’t go to sleep unless you tuck me in.

In this regard, even more essential is the actor cast as Buddy’s self-absorbed, not-exactly-Scrooge-like-but-still-on-Santa’s-Naughty-List father Walter Hobbs, and the biggest compliment you can pay James Caan is that the entire interaction between Walter and Buddy seems designed to provoke Caan the person rather than Hobbs the character. When Ferrell tries to hold hands with him, or when Buddy asks Walter to tuck him in at night, you can only conclude it’s playing with fire casting Caan.


The actor apparently took a while to thaw out, but Favreau attested to his sense of humour and that, once he got with it, he was a lot of fun (Ferrell wrote him a note as wrap gift, invoking his most famous role: “The first one is a little bit slow, but the second two are really good”); he evidently has something of a knack for these comedies of deadpan hard man reacting to frivolous opposites, as he also got on with Hugh Grant on Mickey Blue Eyes (“He decided quite early that I was an English wimp, and he’s been giving me hell for it ever since”). It seems Caan was on the verge of cracking up during Buddy’s blood test scene, so had to turn away when Buddy screamed. Crucially, he also brings genuineness when it counts (“Don’t tell my son what to do” of his younger son, standing up to his boss).


Buddy: The best way to spread Christmas cheer
Is singing loud for all to hear.

Inevitably, the female parts aren’t as rewarding. Mary Steenburgen only has to walk into a room to seem like the nicest mom ever, while Zooey’s comedic skills are mostly thrown into the sharp relief of staring indulgently at Ferrell with those enormous eyes (which is more than enough). She also gets to sing, something Favreau added when he found she had a talent and which adds a certain something to the Central Park finale.


If the setup of Elf is passingly similar to Santa Claus: The Movie (“elf” leaves the North Pole to find his own way, arrives in New York and eventually reunites with Santa), this is as entirely well apportioned as that movie was misconceived. Even the platitudes (“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing”) land thanks to Favreau’s light touch. He’s also mercifully aware that, when it comes to comedy, two hours is usually much too much. At least he was; Chef’s biggest problem is that it’s about half an hour too long. Elf rightly attained its status as a Christmas perennial very quickly, offering that elusively perfect mixture of sentiment and insanity. In fact, you’ve probably just watched it again.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…