I was never a fan of Elf, from the moment I first previewed it, 6:00 am Friday morning, November 7, 2003. That was the same day Love Actually came out, and maybe my palate had been soured by watching that one first. But Elf has grown on me.
Will Ferrell tends to play jazz variations on his trademark man-child riff, and that riff has never been purer than in Elf. As opposed to Ben Stiller, who sends up (adult) male insecurity, Ferrell delights in the unformed id. Sure it’s silly, but revisiting the movie now I’m struck by how uncynical Ferrell’s portrayal is. His character isn’t corrupted (or even bruised) by the spiritless world; instead, the world joins him at his level. Of course, that can only work in a holiday parable, but that’s exactly what Elf is. It proves to be a robust vehicle.
The casting team struck gold with Bob Newhart, who is simultaneously the least likely and yet the most elfin character one can imagine – he’s funny without doing much at all. Likewise, Zooey Deschanel would have been provided a backstory in another movie, to demonstrate why she’s jaded. She doesn’t need it, which leaves more room for Ferrell’s high jinx.
Jon Favreau would go on to make standard, high-budget cudgels like Iron Man, but he often shows whimsical invention here. The final mandatory chase scene is the only one that drags – it’s too loud and too long, but there’s a delightful epilogue to wash it away. I expect this holiday entertainment will continue to find new audiences for years to come.