Generally, I’m not a fan of the man-child character. The reason for this is that they’re both (1) annoying and (2) have little reason for existing in the first place. It’s usually passed off as just an immature person, but it’s also frequently done over-the-top for comedic effect. Will Ferrell plays these types of roles with great frequency. The only reason Elf works is because there’s a real (real?) reason for him to act this way.
As it turns out, Buddy the elf (Ferrell) isn’t an elf at all. At an orphanage, he climbed into Santa’s sack and was carried off to the North Pole. Instead of, you know, the omnipotent elf putting him back (it’s mentioned that he must have come from the orphanage, so returning him shouldn’t be that difficult), Buddy is adopted by “Papa Elf” (Bob Newhart). He spends his years making toys, although he’s not very good at it. Oh, and he’s also three times bigger than the other elves because, you know, he’s not actually an elf; he’s a human!
After being told this, Buddy decides that taking a trip to America, New York City to be specific, would be a good idea. So he does this. He’s going to reconnect with his father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), because after thirty-odd years of not knowing him, that seems like the sensible thing to do. Hey, I’ve heard of longer reconnections. The problem is that Walter doesn’t even know that he has a son, let alone that he was raised in the North Pole by elves. Gee, I wonder how that could go wrong!
Buddy is out of touch with the real world. Having know only elves for the first thirty years of his life, it’s quite obvious why he wouldn’t understand human life. He’s completely fascinated with those swinging doors that you use to enter buildings, he thinks that you need to eat sugar with everything (putting syrup on spaghetti instead of tomato sauce, for example), and he basically acts like a child because, well, he was raised by elves! And elves are just so playful and have so much spirit because they don’t have to deal with the harshness of life, so it makes sense that their children would have the maturity of a 6-year-old as well.
Most of Elf follows Buddy’s antics around New York City, trying to get love from his father, adoration from Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a girl who works at the local mall, as well as spreading Christmas Cheer to everyone he sees. He did think he was an elf for 30 years, after all. We can understand why he acts the way he does, and Will Ferrell is actually better her than in many of his other roles.
A normal person with an average maturity/intelligence wouldn’t work for this role, and instead of thinking Buddy’s stupid for not acting properly, we’ve been given a situation that makes us pity him. We can get behind the idea of an “elf” becoming lost in the slew of traffic in New York City because it appeals to our inner-child (or if you’re a child, it appeals directly to you and how small you are in the big, bad world that lies in front of you). Seeing him experience things we take for granted every day is humorous, while seeing him attempt to cheer up all the non-believers out there is heartwarming.
Essentially, Elf is a funny family friendly film that has a heart and a brain; this is the type of film that you can watch with your kids and have quite an enjoyable experience yourself. I know I laughed quite frequently while it was playing, but it also managed to charm me. By the time the mid-way point hit, I was rooting for buddy to begin to build a relationship with his dad, win the disapproving girl’s affection, and just generally find his way in life now that this earth-shattering reveal has unfolded before him.
Where Elf stutters is when it tries to wrap itself up. It doesn’t seem to know exactly where it should finish, nor is aware how, so it decides that raising the stakes instead of keeping it simple and at a reasonable scale is the only way to go. I lost a little bit of interest at this point. Even though it attempts to go out with a bang, Elf trips before reaching the finish line, sliding under the banner instead of going through it. It still wins the race, but it doesn’t finish in style or in a way to allow the crowd to appreciate the effort as much as we would like to.
Will Ferrell might like the man-child role, but this is the film where it works really well. Because we have reason to sympathize with him — he really doesn’t know better and there’s a good reason for it — we care about him. And Ferrell milks this for all it’s worth, actually tugging at our heartstrings a little bit. Supporting cast members are also strong. I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Ed Asner as Santa Claus. Mary Steenburgen as Walter’s wife, Faizon Love as the store manager or Peter Dinklage as a children’s book writer.
For about 80% of Elf, I had a great time. The ending is what threw me off, and the only reason I might be hesitant to recommend it. It’s still a very funny and heartwarming film, and is one of the better examples of the man-child character actually working, although it fizzles out near its finale, holding it back from being a great film. But it’s well worth watching especially if you need another family friendly holiday film that anyone can enjoy and everyone will feel good about.