By Steve Beard
2003 National Review
One of this season’s most enjoyable films is the new Christmas comedy Elf starring Will Ferrell, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, and directed by the talented John Favreau.
In the spirit of Christmas classics such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Scrooge, Favreau has developed the kind of uproarious holiday film that is, as he says, “irreverent and edgy without being offensive.” Elf portrays the power of love to overwhelm cynicism and apathy. It also touches upon themes of redemption, charity, and the importance of family.
Though Will Ferrell is most well known for his character sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” this is the kind of movie that appeals to audiences of all ages. Ferrell plays Buddy, an orphan, who as an infant, accidentally ends up at the North Pole and is raised by Santa (Ed Asner) and the elves. As he comes to discover that toy making is not his calling and that he is three times the size as everyone else in Santa’s workshop, his adopted elf dad (Bob Newhart) breaks the news to him that he is not an elf at all.
Buddy is told the truth about his mother putting him up for adoption shortly before her untimely death but that his biological father is living in New York City. That news prompts him to leave the North Pole and head off to the Big Apple in order to be reunited with his dad and new family. As you might expect, a 6’2 man in a green elf suit prancing about in front of the Empire State Building creates quite a stir, lots of misunderstanding, and rejection. Buddy soon discovers that maneuvering around Manhattan is not all candy canes and sugarplums.
Buddy’s father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is a heartless Scrooge type who is on Santa’s “naughty list” and does not appreciate having an unknown son spring up out of nowhere in an elf outfit. Nevertheless, Buddy turns out to be the exact element that the dysfunctional Hobbs family needs—bubbling joy, innocent wonderment, unreserved love, and lots of laughs. Buddy’s pureheartedness is challenged and misunderstood in every way, yet he refuses to lose hope.
While family-friendly fare is not new to television veterans such as Ed Asner and Bob Newhart, this was a new genre for Will Farrell (Old School) and Jon Favreau (Swingers and Made). As the director and a father to two small children, Favreau knew that he wanted to make a movie that both parents and kids could equally enjoy. “Most of the people involved—not Will—but most of the other people are parents too,” says Favreau, “and it was nice to be working with something that they knew their kids could see.”
The crew wanted to make a funny movie for broad exposure without losing the teens and twentysomethings who are most familiar with Favreau and Farrell’s previous hip projects. “It is just a matter of limiting yourself a little bit more as a filmmaker and as a writer and as a director,” he explained. “Limiting how much is available to you in order to make your audience laugh. It forces you to become more resourceful in the way that you approach comedy.”
Favreau is the child of a mixed marriage (dad is Catholic and mom is Jewish) but “Christmas is the holiday I have always come back to,” he said. “Both sides of the family, surprisingly enough, would celebrate it with equal passion. We would have the fish dinner on Christmas Eve with the Italian family and then we would have lox and bagels the next morning.” In between the festivities, he attended midnight mass with his grandmother.
While Favreau is well aware of the criticism of the commercialization of Christmas, his diverse religious background gives him a different perspective on the way in which the Christmas-Hanukkah season is celebrated. “There is something, I think, that is very true, especially in New York, of how the holiday manifests itself because it is about giving and community and doing unto others and all the basic tenants of what all good religions are based on.…I think it really brings out something that is nice and something that is very American.”
It was important to Favreau to reclaim the “Christmas in New York” movie motif after the devastating terrorist attack on September 11. “Being a New Yorker especially, I wanted something positive. It refocused a lot of people in my industry and made you want to do something nice and having a six-week-old when 9-11 happened focused me. I said, ‘My God, look at what I have. My kid is smiling for the first time and I am watching CNN.’ It is so confusing and scary,” he says. “It is just a confusing time to be a kid, I would imagine. And certainly a very sad time to be a New Yorker.”
That is one of the reasons the movie focuses so heavily upon innocence, childlikeness, purity and joy. “Although nothing is overt about it in the movie, there is something symbolic about the spirit of this innocent character taking this cynical group of people and sort of healing the wounds of the family that has come apart….And a lot of stuff like featuring the Empire State Building and all the American flags in the movie—it was my way of sort of like taking it back.”
Favreau joins the ranks of other talented young filmmakers who are attempting to create projects for a wider family-based audience. Richard Linklater just did School of Rock and Robert Rodriquez directed Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. “It is not a conspiracy when we are on the phone together saying, ‘Hey, lets all sell out,’” says Favreau. “It is more like this is what we have an opinion on. I see Finding Nemo and I am inspired and I say that is a good movie. Or I saw Babe and that is a good movie. That is not a kids movie, that’s a good movie.”
With an award-winning cast, Elf is the uproarious Christmas-in-New-York movie for a new generation. It is a comedic tour de force for Will Ferrell, coupling “Saturday Night Live” laughs with the kind of big-hearted Christmas values that can be enjoyed by the entire family. Irreverent, hilarious, and heart-warming, Elf is the kind of kitchy movie that I look forward to seeing on television during the holiday season year after year.
Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.org.