At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Elf “03”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Elf “03”

MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Holiday Comedy/Stars: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Artie Lange, Jon Favreau, Lydia Lawson-Baird, Ted Friend, Claire Lautier, David Paul Grove, Michael Roberds, Richard Side, Mark Acheson, Matt Walsh, Peter Billingsley; Voices of: Leon Redbone, Ray Harryhausen, Jon Favreau, Maurice LaMarche, Dallas McKennon/Runtime: 97 minutes

I think it’s a pretty safe bet to make that, for almost the entirety of cinema’s existence, each generation of movie goer has been treated to at least 5-50 minimum Christmas movies in a given calendar year (though an argument could definitely be made for at least 60-70 ever since Hallmark thought making Christmas movies year-round using pretty much the SAME EXACT formula and just making minor tweaks here and there was a good idea). Along with that supposition, I am also going to say that, for all those holiday movies, only a few are ever really seen as time-honored classics. Perhaps this is why when one thinks about iconic Christmas cinema, the first examples that typically dance like sugarplums through one’s mind tend to include It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, Black Christmas from 1974, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Die Hard, Gremlins, The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Santa Clause, Miracle on 34th Street, and of course that all-time shining star of Christmas majesty the Star Wars Holiday Special (kidding, kidding). As wonderful as all (or rather almost all I should say) those prior mentioned slices of cinema are though, there is one nestled all snug amongst that iconic group that I feel is worthy of mention this holiday season. That being the 2003 slice of holiday cinema, and film I happen to be reviewing for you this Christmas Day incidentally, Elf. A film that, unlike say Christmas with the Kranks or Deck the Halls which came out the same decade incidentally, is by no means the cynical cinematic equivalent to that one gift you get every year that you have to pretend you like even if you’d rather get anything else but that thing. Rather, this is actually a slice of cinema that, whilst being seemingly drenched in equal parts egg nog, candy cane latte, and the mythos of the holiday, is able to showcase beautifully the heartwarming spirit of the holidays and bring it all together in a story that is genuinely funny, quite intelligent to say nothing of fairly original, and often times actually quite touching respectively. At the same time, it should be said that this is a slice of cinema that is so closely tied to Christmas that your level of appreciation toward the holiday is very much so going to affect how much you appreciate this slice of cinema. Even with that in mind though, that should by no means take away from how just plain enjoyable this slice of cinema truly is. Indeed there might be a few issues scattered about here and there, but with the aid of truly impeccable work both behind and in front of the camera, Elf “03” is one fun and merry holiday slice of cinema that kids from 1-99 (and beyond come to think) are sure to enjoy time and time again.

The plot is as follows: So on Christmas Eve in the long-ago year of 1973, according to this slice of cinema, that icon of holiday cheer Kris Kringle (or Santa Claus if you prefer) was making his rounds and stopped at an orphanage to drop off toys to the kids there. Yet even though he was successful in doing so, we see that something else occurred. Namely that Santa managed to pick up, of all things, a stowaway in the form of a baby boy who saw a teddy bear and decided to make his way into Santa’s bag of toys. Yet, upon arriving back home at the North Pole and discovering his secret passenger, we see that Santa doesn’t try and return him via UPS’ Next Day Air option albeit with some cookies and milk for nourishment plus a few airholes for survival purposes. Nor for that matter does he take his sleigh, with baby in tow, out into the woods, open the door, and say to this baby “you’re free! Now go on! Be free!”. Instead, he decides to turn him over to the elves and, upon discovering a label on the baby’s diaper that says Little Buddy Diapers, they make the creative choice to name him (get this) Buddy (apparently actually trying to take the time to learn the baby’s real name wasn’t exactly a top priority for Santa’s team that night). At any rate, we soon see that our film then moves ahead a solid 3 decades where, in the time since, Buddy has not only become an accepted part of the elf community, but he also has grown up thinking that he too is an elf. Yet it isn’t long before circumstances cause Buddy’s adoptive elf dad, appropriately named Papa Elf, decides to break the truth to him about his real heritage. On top of that, we also learn that Buddy’s real parents were a couple by the name of Walter Hobbs and Susan Wells respectively. Yet even though Susan has tragically long since passed away, we see that Walter is still around working as a workaholic executive children’s book publishing company, but that he has no idea that he even has an adult son who was, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped by Santa and his elves. Even worse than that, for Buddy anyway, is the revelation that dear ol’ dad is on that infamous document known as the Naughty List due to being kinda sorta a selfish jerk and a half, but fortunately he could still find his way onto the Nice List if Buddy was able to meet him and reinstill in him some of that vital Christmas spirit. As a result, we see that Buddy decides to make the trip from the North Pole all the way to no less a location to New York City in an attempt to meet his dad and try to reconnect with the ol’ grump in the process. Thus can our misguided human in attire you could find at Build-a-Elf find his father, convince him of who he is, and restore his Christmas spirit or is this one chestnut that will prove too difficult for even the seemingly eternally optimistic Buddy to crack? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself…..

Now right off, it should be said that the work done behind the camera on this particular cinematic outing is nothing short of incredible even if, in all honesty, the script for the film is one that does tragically fall a wee bit on the cliché side. As a result, not only can you pretty much guess where it is going at any given moment, but I am sure that without even watching the film you can figure out just how in the world it is going to end as well. Fortunately, the film is able to redeem itself for that bit of a misstep in just about every other avenue behind the camera possible. This starts with the work done by none other than Jon “Happy Hogan” Favreau at the helm and honestly he does a really great job here. Indeed it’s clear that for this movie to work on the level that it aspired to, it would need a director who not only got the assignment and had the same degree of youthful enthusiasm that its protagonist has, but also could contribute to the film a wonderful blend of old-school charm and warm-hearted Christmas spirit. A mix that Favreau is able to contribute to this film in more than enough merry measure right down to an incredibly ingenious wink and nod to the iconic Bass/Rankin television production of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from 1964 courtesy of not only some stop-motion animated animal characters, but also the presence of a snowman descendant of Burl Ives’ Sam named Leon. Along with the wonderful work done here by Favreau at the helm, this slice of cinema also benefits immensely from the top-tier work done by Greg Gardiner and the rest of the Cinematography department. Not just in their efforts to bring the world of the North Pole to life in an incredibly stylish and well-done manner, but also with respect to how they truly bring forth the magical holiday atmosphere that is just seemingly all over in New York City during Christmastime. Finally, I also think praise should be afforded here to the work done by John Debney in terms of the musical accompaniment for this holiday slice of cinema. Indeed not only does Debney find perhaps just the right spot in the film for the iconic holiday song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, but he also ensures that the rest of the beautifully composed with more than a hint of jazzy score does a wonderful job at being able to equally warm your heart, make your spirit soar, and leave a smile on your face that just won’t quit. Suffice it to say that, when you also factor in terrific work from the costume department (especially when it comes to how they make the costumes for the elves lovingly feel like live-action throwbacks to the ones seen in the aforementioned Rudolph TV special) it’s clear that the narrative at play in this film might be more than a wee bit on the predictable side, but thankfully the rest of the work that is done behind the camera is more than enough to both make up for it and help this slice of cinema triumph all the same.

Of course, the other big element that works in this slice of holiday cinema’s favor would without question have to be the incredible work done by the cast of talent in front of the camera. Without a doubt in my mind, this has to start with the work done by Will Ferrell in the lead role and honestly this is easily one of his top 5 best performances he has ever given. Indeed in the wrong hands the character of Buddy is one that could either come off as more than a tad bit creepy or (even worse) extremely annoying. Fortunately for us, Ferrell in this film not only comes off as neither of those things, but this is also the rare role where his trademark man-child schtick actually works to the benefit of the film rather than deters from it in any meaningful or significant manner. To be sure, the character is at times more than a tad bit on the childish side especially in terms of his awe at the “outside world” to say nothing of his complete and utter naivety at how things operate in the so-called “real world”. Through it all though Ferrell brings such a wonderful degree of optimism, holiday cheer, and just kindheartedness that you can’t help but root for him to not only find his father, but also bring Christmas cheer to whomever he crosses paths with regardless of how they view him. Suffice it to say that it is a truly heartwarming performance and easily one of the best in its undeniably gifted performer’s distinct cinematic resume. Alongside the winning work done here by Ferrell, this slice of cinema also manages to get a terrific performance out of screen icon James Caan in the role of Buddy’s dear ol’ dad (even if he doesn’t know it at first) Walter. Indeed, I have always enjoyed it whenever James Caan popped up in something, but here it feels like this was a character that was just tailormade for him as a performer from the cynical sense of humor and the gruff exterior all the way to the general no-nonsense attitude that this guy conveys right from the very first moment he appears on screen. Thus I know we tragically lost this bonafide talent and a half last July, but thankfully the man gave us performances such as this that will help ensure that his star will always shine bright no matter what. That same sentiment I feel could be said incidentally for none other than screen legend Ed Asner as this film’s take on Santa Claus. Indeed Asner does a phenomenal job at bringing this childhood icon to life in a way that not only feels true to the character (right down to the beard, sleigh, and toys), but also makes me wonder why he didn’t get a chance to play him either before or after this film. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in winning efforts from such talents as a delightfully deadpan and perfectly cast Bob Newhart in the role of Buddy’s surrogate elf dad, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Faizon Love, Artie Lange, Jon Favreau (who also directed this), Amy Sedaris, the always enjoyable Michael Lerner, and Peter Dinklage in the role that everyone knew him for BEFORE he played Tyrion Lannister in that one Throne of Games show (or something to that effect) among others it’s clear that there might be a few hiccups to be found in this holiday slice of cinema, but the work done by this undeniably talented and extremely well-chosen cast of players most assuredly is not one of them.

All in all and at the end of the day is Elf a perfect slice of holiday cinema? Sadly as much as I would love to say that, I must admit that doing so would be a lie and, seeing as I want to ensure any presents I have been blessed to receive from family and loved ones aren’t immediately returned, I refuse to do that. With that being said however, is this the most ho ho ho horrible holiday cinematic effort since The Santa Clause 3, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, 2010’s take on The Nutcracker, or 1998’s Jack Frost (to name but a few examples)? Thankfully, much to my happiness and stress levels, I can most assuredly say that is definitely not the case either. Indeed it might be one that is wee bit too beholden to its holiday season cinematic parameters and it may engage in a wee bit too much in terms of sentimentality at the end that as a result might make this one holiday cinematic outing that may not exactly be everyone’s cup of egg nog if you get my drift. With that said though, not only is this such a warm-hearted and genuinely delightful film complete with consistently funny, and family-friendly more often than not at that, humor, but such a genuine joy and enthusiasm on the part of everyone involved both behind and especially in front of the camera that I can definitely see this slice of cinema quickly becoming one that you and the little elves in your life are sure to cherish time and time again. Suffice it to say then that it might not be perfect by any stretch, but Elf “03” is definitely one holiday film that I can say is an absolute delight from start to finish to say nothing of a true-blue Christmas cinematic triumph in every sense of the word. Just please make sure to keep your baby in their crib when Santa comes down the chimney. After all during the holidays it’s always better to be safe than sorry. That and do you really want those hard-working elves to really have to take care of your child in addition to making all those toys? I didn’t think so either….Make of that what thou will and Happy Holidays dear reader! On a scale of 1-5 I give Elf “03” a solid 4 out of 5.