Will Ferrell is the kind of comedic actor I root for.
He was one of the only good things about “Saturday Night Live” for years. When he was popular enough to break out into movies, it was in forgettable SNL spin-offs like “A Night at the Roxbury,” “Superstar,” and “The Ladies Man.” He had funny, memorable roles in “Zoolander” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” but they weren’t really main characters.
By the time he finally landed a starring role, it was in “Old School,” a very mediocre film in which Ferrell ultimately stole the show.
Now, with “Elf,” Ferrell finally has a great movie he can call his own. And like Jack Black, earlier this year in “The School of Rock,” this movie seems to be written specifically with him in mind.
Ferrell has always had a child-like quality in his humor. He’s immediately endearing to audiences because of his natural playfulness. In “Elf,” you don’t see a man who is supposed to be one of Santa’s elves running rampant through modern day New York City and getting into all kinds of trouble. You see that Farrell IS Buddy, the human who was raised as an elf, and believe him every step of the way.
The early scenes at the North Pole do a good job setting up this charming holiday movie, but things really start getting funny once Buddy hits Manhattan. Screenwriter David Berenbaum hits all the traditional marks for a Christmas movie.
Will Christmas be ruined? There must be the familiar Scrooge factor (Buddy’s biological father, played by James Caan). And of course, the lack of Christmas spirit is an old favorite plot point. But seen through Buddy’s eyes, these elements almost become fresh again, and “Elf” rises above the glut of terrible Christmas movies that get made every year.
This is a true Christmas miracle. “Elf” is a genuine movie that works, and it is made possible by Will Ferrell and the director, Jon Favreau.
Favreau is an indie director, probably most famous for writing “Swingers” and writing and directing “Made.” He has made some unusual choices for a family film. The cast is peppered equally with cult comedy heroes, fantastic actors who traditionally star in smaller films, and older, established icons.
People like Zooey Deschanel (“The Good Girl”), Amy Sedaris (TV’s “Strangers With Candy”), Kyle Gass (Tenacious D), Andy Richter (TV’s “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”) and Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”) share the movie with Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen, and of course, James Caan. Favreau, an actor himself, even joins the movie for a brief, enjoyable bit.
There also is a lot of humor for adults, and Favreau and Ferrell probably were responsible for fine-tuning “Elf” into the positive-message movie it is without losing the audience by including too much holiday schmaltz. When things do get cheesy toward the end, it’s too late to turn back because Buddy is so damned cute, you can’t help but get sucked in.
It’s ironic that two of the best family films this year were directed by indie-spirited directors and starred casts of largely unproven box-office draws. Both “The School of Rock” and “Elf” should signal a change in Hollywood. Hopefully good word-of-mouth will spread on “Elf” like it did with “School,” and we’ll be seeing less stale family films where the budget went to pay Tim Allen’s unreasonably large paycheck.
Instead, I’d like to see that money be spent on scripts, directors, and actors who want to make something the whole family can enjoy and not feel insulted by.