For as long as he can remember, Buddy (Will Ferrell) has been the odd elf out at the North Pole, simply too big and uncoordinated to manage the chores which come so naturally to other elves. Then, one day, his papa (Bob Newhart) spills the jelly-beans: Buddy is actually an adopted human whose natural father, Walter (James Caan), is alive and well, working as a big-wig at a New York children's book publisher. The only hitch is that Walter, who now has a wife (Mary Steenburgen) and young son (Daniel Tay), is a heartless money-monger who has no idea that a college romance with a now-deceased sweetheart produced a son, much less the slap-happy lunatic who is about to walk through his office door and turn his world upside-down.
Hollywood's long-standing love affair with the naive, affable man-child is well-established--Jerry Lewis, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler and Harpo Marx all rose to the top by letting their inner-child hang out. What Will Ferrell brings to Buddy, however, is much more rare--an earnestness that transcends the childishness, going to the very personification of innocence itself. To be sure, it's bundled up in Ferrell's big, goofy puppy-like persona, but at no point does the film lose track of its hopeful holiday heart, thanks in no small measure to a wonderful supporting cast that helps keep things relatively grounded. In addition to Caan, Steenburgen, Newhart and Tay, the picture features the always wonderful Zooey Deschanel as Buddy's reluctant love interest and Ed Asner as a lovably droll Santa.
It's also key that the creative triumvirate behind "Elf"--Ferrell, director Jon Favreau and writer David Berenbaum--are all new to this level of success. "Elf" is Ferrell's first major starring role, Berenbaum's first produced screenplay and Favreau's first major film as a director, coming on the heels of 2001's "Made," in which he also starred. Consequently, they seem unafraid, even proud to flaunt their inspirations--everything from traditional classics like "A Christmas Carol" and "Miracle on 34th Street" to the beloved Rankin-Bass stop-motion television specials "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," wrapping it around a structure mostly borrowed from "Big." To fault the film for such, of course, would be foolish--as far back as "It's a Wonderful Life," which merely refashioned Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" for a war-weary American public, Christmas films have freely exchanged with one another.
It is, in a sense, a genre which embodies the very spirit of Christmas itself--a genre which can proudly claim this "Elf" as one of its own. Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Edward Asner and Mary Steenburgen. Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by David Berenbaum. Produced by Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki and Shauna Weinberg. A New Line release. Comedy. Rated PG for some mild rude humor and language. Running time: 96 min