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Friday, November 07, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Likable Ferrell enlivens tall tale of 'Elf'
By Moira Macdonald
But enough of the butt; there's no skin in "Elf," and it's perfectly fine for non-traumatized viewers of all ages. Ferrell plays Buddy, a statuesque elf in a green velvet suit who learns, to his chagrin, that he's actually human. Santa (Ed Asner, in a spot-on bit of casting), along with Buddy's adoptive elf father (Bob Newhart, agreeably stammering), encourage him to head to New York to look up his real dad, so off he goes, arriving in Manhattan just in time for the holiday shopping season.
Though Santa's given him a bit of advice about the real world ("When you see gum on the street, leave it there it's not free candy"), nothing has prepared Buddy for what he sees and for the fact that his dad (James Caan), a permanent resident on Santa's "naughty list," doesn't want him around. But the Christmas spirit, not to mention Buddy's uncanny knack for creating inexpensive holiday décor, ultimately prevails. By the time Buddy's new girlfriend Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, sweet as a candy cane) sings "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," New York has become a snow-globe wonderland.
This sort of movie lives and dies on its lead character's performance if we don't like the elf, there's no point to "Elf." And Ferrell, in his extra-long yellow tights, is at his most likable here; ingratiating and fairly bouncing with enthusiasm, as if his outsize frame can barely contain his glee. He grins and shrieks and bugs out his eyes, yet it's all carefully controlled; there'd be room for another performer to step up and meet him, but nobody outside of the North Pole does so. Asner and Newhart are very funny and underutilized; Caan, who gets much more screen time, has nothing to play. (Peter Dinklage, so good in "The Station Agent," gets laughs in a brief scene but if you've seen "Elf's" ubiquitous trailer, you've seen it all.)
Director Jon Favreau ("Made"), drenches the film in holiday cheer; there's a sweet nod to the animated classic "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," with a talking snowman who looks like Burl Ives (though he sounds more like Ray Charles). "Elf," with its muddy photography and occasional blandness, won't make you forget that film, but thanks to Ferrell, it's a tolerably sweet holiday treat.
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