Reeling Backward: Elf (2003)
Just not in time for the holidays, a recent revisit with the surprise Christmas classic earns a smidgen more love from our resident crusty curmudgeon.
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Film critics aren’t supposed to pay attention to box office grosses, but of course we do. I silently root for movies I like to do well financially, and even more surreptitiously wish that ones I don’t falter.
The reasoning is simple: I figure if those flicks earn lots of money, they will make more like them. And maybe less of the cruddy stuff. The latter dynamic certainly seems to have worked for martial arts movies, the one genre I will unabashedly say I loathe, which has blessedly fallen off a cliff from its Seagal/Van Damme ‘heyday.’
So it’s always interesting to me which pictures succeed and which don’t. At the time of its release two decades ago this year, I thought “Elf” a perfectly serviceable comedy that played well to the strengths of star Will Ferrell, who was then mostly still known as the tall, amiable doofus from “Saturday Night Live.”
Afterward he was viewed as an A-list comedic leading man. It was also Zooey Deschanel’s breakout role, and helped James Caan carry forward the career rival he’d enjoyed since 1990’s “Misery.”
It was Jon Favreau’s second feature as a director, and its financial success ($220 million worldwide gross against a $33 budget) no doubt vaulted him into viability to direct the first two “Iron Man” movies and subsequently become a favorite on the Star Wars/Disney team with “The Jungle Book” and “The Mandalorian” series.
The original script by David Berenbaum was his first produced, his other works staying in what I’d call the middlebrow space of “The Haunted Mansion” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”
Since then the reputation of “Elf” has continued to grow and grow into a veritable Christmas classic, with many people even committing the travesty of putting it above “A Christmas Story.” The film has now been discovered by younger generations of watchers whose appreciation was spurred by that of their parents or older siblings.
That got me scratching my head as it didn’t jibe with my own “adequate” memory of the flick. Like “Superbad,” it was a movie that launched careers and, in my curmudgeonly opinion, didn’t really deserve to.
Having now rewatched it for the first time since its release along with my family, I’m willing to upgrade my opinion of “Elf” — if only just a smidge. Though its flaws are still apparent to me, I can see how its mix of naughty and nice attitudes, along with a puckish sense of humor, has led to it being adored by both Christmas traditionalists and those who approach it with a sense of ironic detachment.
Of course, everything is built around Ferrell’s totally invested performance as Buddy, an orphaned human raised by North Pole elves who journeys to New York City (of course) at age 30 to find his long-lost father. Weird how these quests never take people to places like Ames, Iowa.
Buddy is a total innocent who sees everything through the lens of Christmas. To him, elves and Santa and flying reindeer and naughty lists are normal, while taxi cabs and cynicism are strange new things.
I think if the movie contained even a moment where Buddy’s joyful enthusiasm and naivete faltered, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. He is perpetually “on” for 98 minutes straight, and it’s just a matter of time before the jaded people around him are converted to his goofy, giddy state of grace.
Take Jovie, the Gimbels department store elf played by Deschanel. The part is horrendously underwritten, with her character only really gifted with two attributes: 1) she likes to sing, but is shy about it, and 2) she is eventually overcome by Buddy’s puppyish, helpless affection for her.
Despite this, Deschanel manages to give Jovie an ironic twist, sort of a proto-April Ludgate mean girl streak, throwing hard side-eye at Buddy until she finally comes to realize he’s not just doing a schtick to get in her pants.
Their most memorable scene together, where she sings “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the shower while Buddy does an uninvited accompaniment, seemed very sweet at the time but probably registers as outright creepy now. The song has undergone its own considerable rethink, too.
I’ll say this: it’s a weird, underwhelming performance by Caan as Buddy’s dad, a cutthroat editor of children’s books named Walter Hobbs. His screen persona, while encompassing a wide range of characters over the decades, did not extend well to overt sentimentality.
He seems to lean away from the scenes where he’s supposed to behave dickishly. He then seems puzzled and unsure how to navigate the parts where he finally starts to accept Buddy as his real son and show affection. He comes across as doddering and frankly lost, like he just showed up to the set without reading the script and worked off cue cards.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Caan was phoning it in, but certainly he was just showing up rather than being fully present.
I don’t lay this all at his feet. I think if Favreau had been more experienced at the time, the director would’ve felt more comfortable calling the screen legend out and helped hone the performance.
I can’t help wondering how it might have been if Walter had instead been portrayed by Bob Newhart, who plays Buddy’s adoptive Papa Elf and also acts as narrator. Newhart’s owlish features naturally lended themselves to playing an elf, and the movie has a lot of fun with forced perspective shots where Ferrell towers over him or crushes his lap.
But I can see how Newhart’s signature folksy diffidence could be given a quarter-turn toward the malevolent, with more effective results than Caan’s where-am-I routine. I love it when comedic actors take on nefarious roles while retaining an acerbic quality, like Albert Brooks in “Drive.”
(Garry Shandling was first offered the role, but turned it down.)
Speaking of villainy, there aren’t any real bad guys in “Elf,” apart from the brief introduction of the Central Park Rangers, who chase Santa’s grounded sleigh through the park in the final act. They’re presented here as dark faceless horsemen who could be cousins of the Nazgûl in “The Lord of the Rings” looking to run down Santa (Ed Asner).
The Rangers are a legitimate law enforcement outfit, and the purported past atrocities mentioned in the movie — including beatings of Simon & Garfunkel concert attendees — are entirely made up. I’ve always wondered how they felt about getting roped into playing the heavies.
The movie was originally conceived in the early 1990s as a bawdier version with Chris Farley and Jim Carrey in consideration to play Buddy. Original director Terry Zwigoff left the project to lean further in that direction with “Bad Santa.”
Favreau came in and wanted to do something sweeter, with a nod to “Frosty the Snowman” and other stop-motion Christmas TV specials of his youth. Though there’s still plenty of salty humor, from one of cinema’s longest onscreen belches to other slapstick and/or gastrointestinal jokes aimed to please smaller kids.
Nearly 20 years after its release, I think what contributes most to the enduring legacy of “Elf” is its inherent niceness. It was much the same reason audiences have reacted so strongly to “Ted Lasso,” who like Buddy acts as an indefatigable beacon of comity.
Remember, at the time “Elf” came out the U.S. was embroiled in a vortex of fear, paranoia and misplaced resolve. Lasso entered the public consciousness during a similarly contentious age.
I like to think the times we live in decide which movies succeed as much as the films themselves. It generally takes so long to conceive and mount a production — 10 years in the case of “Elf” — that the things people were thinking about when they dreamed it up are usually very different from what’s on ticket-buyers’ minds when they’re deciding what to go see.
I still think “Elf” is a merely good rather than great movie. But it arrived at exactly the right time to become what it did. A little yuletide luck goes a long way.