Jon Favreau’s Elf is a clever little holiday movie with some big surprises. Yes, the movie stars Will Ferrell, and yes, the movie is about Christmas elves. However, this is not your ordinary Will Ferrell movie, nor is it your ordinary holiday-season filler. Ferrell’s performance is so inspired and perfectly apt for his role that we are given a film that reaffirms both our Christmas spirit and our faith in the shenanigans of Ferrell himself.

Ferrell plays Buddy, a human raised by elves in the North Pole. Upon growing up and realizing that he is curiously at odds with the rest of the elves (he’s three times their size, and cannot make Christmas toys nearly as efficiently as they can), he embarks on a personal mission to seek out his roots in his birthplace: New York City. Before he leaves the North Pole, he is forewarned that his father (James Caan) is on Santa’s “naughty list,” which is reserved for those who have lost their Christmas spirit. Disheartened but ultimately hopeful, Buddy leaves the North Pole, traveling by floating iceberg, ready to take on the real-world challenges of the Big Apple and eager to discover who he really is.

Ferrell manages to project a sincere air of childlike innocence that is at times comically absurd, and at other times genuinely touching. Having been raised by Christmas elves, who themselves embody the spirit of giving, caring and lightheartedness, Buddy is at all times just a child in a man’s body. But through his interactions with his father, his stepmother and his stepbrother in New York City, we see him achieving a better understanding of what it means to love, to give and to be himself. More importantly, Buddy’s family is also slowly reawakened to what’s really important. They learn from Buddy’s simple, childlike approach to life that it is all too easy to lose sight of each other in the busy, complex world of everyday living.

At first glance, this movie might seem too cartoonish, too puerile and too over-the-top. Ferrell’s past record of movies like Old School, Zoolander, and The Ladies’ Man is hardly suggestive of his capacity to play a whimsically sincere Christmas elf with any sort of self-restraint. However, under the firm direction of Jon Favreau (who starred in Swingers and also directed Made), this movie manages to escape the pitfalls of the audience’s preconceptions through clever humor and inspired acting. Although Elf never really overcomes some of the standard holiday-movie clich├ęs, it avoids the sappiness so characteristic of those types of films, allowing for a very pleasurable movie-going experience. Original in its story line, surprising in the strength of its performances and wittily humorous in its presentation, Favreau’s Elf easily exceeds our expectations of the holiday-movie genre.

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