People like Adam Sandler, Dwayne Johnson, and Michael Bay (if your ‘acquired taste’ is specifically a taste for horse manure) can all count themselves among some of the most divisive names in the business. One other such name that should be considered is Will Ferrell.
Some love his comic buffoonery no matter how often he trots out the same jokes, and in what order. Whereas some can’t stand the sight of him, even in his more successful roles.
Personally, I like to stay in the middle of any division, and the same is true here. Sure, Ferrell’s antics are samey now after we’ve seen all of his jokes for nearly twenty years, but with the right partnership, script or idea, he’s a dynamite performer.
Elf tells the story of Buddy, a human who accidentally ends up in Santa’s sack as a baby and is returned to the North Pole. Raised as an elf, Buddy starts to realise that he isn’t like all the other elves. When his father elf tells him the truth, that his father is alive, lives in New York, and worse, is on the naughty list, Buddy sets out to meet his father, and save him from the fate of finding coal under his tree.
Ferrell is his usual madcap self in Elf, but the clever part about it is that the role is written to lean into this sillier side of his personality. It needed a certain energetic performer to ensure it didn’t fall flat, and on that front, I’d call it a success.
As I’ve also said before, we tend to give a bit more slack to Christmas films, which makes someone like Ferrell a bit more palatable, especially when we’re making our way down our third glass of mulled wine.
The truth is, a lot of people hold this film close to their heart. It is an essential ‘casual’ film, the kind that anyone who has ever so much as glanced at a cinema will know, its broad appeal is in its crowd-pleasing nature, it’s easy to grasp story, and its fun leading character.
Even though it isn’t anywhere near perfect, somehow, we don’t look too critically at this kind of film. Usually this is because we watch them when we want to feel festive, we don’t want to be challenged too much, just entertained, and that’s what Elf does. It’s quintessential Christmas family entertainment.
I can’t claim to be immune to such charms, nor would I want to be. The day I lose my Christmas spirit is the day I die inside, no matter how many terrible films I have to get through, and Elf isn’t terrible, it’s a lot of fun.
I think it works because there’s a good balance between the wacky Ferrell comedy and the touching, if a bit simple, story. His role is dominating, but it doesn’t dominate every scene, he very much knows when it’s time to let his antics go to the background and let other people take centre stage, or to further develop his character.
This was also the big break for director Jon Favreau, famous now for directing the first two Iron Man films that launched the MCU way back when, and more recently, for his role as showrunner on The Mandalorian.
The fluffy, feel-good nature of the story is carried well in Favreau’s hands, and he adds a certain flair to proceedings, his cameo was a given, as it always is, but there’s a breezy spirit to the film that can only come of a director who isn’t taking themselves too seriously.
Although, having said all this, your enjoyment of the film will depend on your stance on Ferrell in general, as it is very much his vehicle. However, I feel the humour hits better here because of how likable Buddy is as a character. He’s an eternal optimist with a disposition so sunny that he’s a hazard to anyone with red hair, and at no point does that ever feel annoying either, as such characters often can.
The supporting cast is strong too, with Zooey Deschanel playing Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, who is very much a reflection of New York’s often pessimistic attitude, but no more so than James Caan, who plays Buddy’s father, who is, and let’s be reasonable, a real cotton-headed ninnymuggins if ever there was one.
But as is inevitable, Buddy thaws their hearts, as he does the audiences, and raises the city’s Christmas cheer in a satisfyingly festive conclusion. Predictable, yes, but also essential. You’re marketing this as a Christmas movie, we want joy, damn it!
As I said earlier, your enjoyment of this will come down to your own personal enjoyment of Ferrell as a performer. I can’t blame you for disliking him, but I do find it hard to dislike this film. It has everything you can ask for in a Christmas film. It’s joyful, sweet, silly, and above all, memorable. It might not have the pedigree of It’s a Wonderful Life or White Christmas, but it makes no apologies for being what it is: pure festive fun.