The Screening Room
NOTE: At Christmas time, this article has become a perennial favorite of readers, and in fact, is popular throughout the year. The film is now considered a modern classic. It's also now available on Blu-ray disc. This was originally posted on this site on December 15, 2004. 

Thank you to our readers for not only supporting this site, but for keeping "Elf" alive in our holiday hearts. Happy holidays!

Although this is located in the DVD Review section, this is not the usual FSTD DVD review that you might be accustomed to.  There are no picture and sound quality reviews, nor are there breakdowns on the DVD features.  Rather, it’s an appreciation of the film, “Elf.”

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I made it my mandate to watch every single Christmas special.  This ritual always, almost without fail, started on Thanksgiving weekend.  It started with the dreadful “Santa And The Three Bears” (1970), and then progressed to the specials I looked forward to: “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” (1964), “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966).


Reality checked in and I grew up.  My yearning to watch these specials began to wane.  The newer Christmas specials lacked the charm and quality of those made in the 1960s. 

Hollywood would churn out more Christmas-time mediocrity at the movies like “Santa Claus: The Movie” (1985) and “Jingle All The Way” (1996), and decent but what were essentially over-budgeted TV movies like “The Santa Clause” (1994).  I had become Scrooge about annual yuletide celluloid fare.  There were occasional films that broke out for me, like “A Christmas Story” (1983), and “Planes, Trains And Automobiles” (1987).  But holiday film and television entertainment wasn’t fun anymore. 

Then, something happened.  My wife and I had a daughter.  The cycle of Christmas specials and movies started over again.

My daughter watched every DVD ever made about the holiday season, and I thought most of them were pretty bad.  After drudging through countless direct-to-video specials, I had lost all hope that there would ever be another Christmas film or special that I could share together.  It’s one thing to get a kick out of Chuck Jones’ version of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” but it’s entirely another for me to warm up to Ron Howard’s version of 2000.

Then, “Elf” arrived on DVD this year.  It came out in 2003 in theatres and became a hit, but I didn’t see it.  I didn’t think it looked very funny.  Will Ferrell is a funny actor and I’ve enjoyed many of his character skits on “Saturday Night Live,” but the commercials for this film reminded me of his portrayals on that show like Craig, the Spartan Spirit Cheerleader.  Not a bad thing, but I was hoping that he’d be performing in a role that was original and not something ripped off from “SNL.”  I figured I’d catch the film at some point in my lifetime.  I just wasn’t eager to rush out and rent it.


After a trip to Costco with her mother, my daughter ran into the house carrying a copy of “Elf.”  “Do you want to watch it?”

I grumbled, “Sure, honey.”

I was already tired of TV ads for Christmas sales that had been on since November 1st.  And I was sick of hearing the opening bars of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from just scanning through my FM dial.  And there were two local Los Angeles radio stations that played Christmas tunes 24-hours a day.  Christmas songs are best heard on Christmas Eve, not the day after Halloween

But “Elf” got me back into the Christmas spirit.  It charmed me into submission.

The story begins with a book opening up to reveal a fairy tale, one very reminiscent in feel to the old Rankin-Bass stop-motion television specials like “Rudolph.” 

Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human living in Santa’s world and raised by elves, is a wide-eyed innocent.  His only goals in life are to be happy, smile and make everyone else happy.  But one day, he finds out that he’s human and has a father living in New York City.  Thus, Buddy’s quest begins.  He’s an elf-out-of-water in the big city.  There he meets his father, a cold and fairly distant man played by James Caan.  Buddy isn’t deterred and continues to try and warm his father’s heart.

“Elf” is never cynical about the holidays and it’s never superficially sweet.  Ferrell conveys a childlike innocence that is never annoying and often hilarious.  The jack-in-a-box testing scene creates big laughs.  My daughter and I laughed hard when he discovered chewed gum wads planted all over a subway rail, and proceeded to eat each and every one of them. 

In another actor’s hands, Buddy could easily be portrayed as an obnoxious grown-up trying to act like a kid.  Perhaps Ferrell took his cue from Tom Hanks in “Big” (1988), who made audiences believe he was a kid in a man’s body.  Here, Ferrell convinces us that he’s indeed an elf from the North Pole where everything is happy and fun.

The film is also touching.  Not in an “It’s A Wonderful Life” way (1946), but in its own subtle manner.  When Buddy tells Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) that she has the most beautiful singing voice in the whole world, I believed his sincerity.  A line like that could come off poorly, but Ferrell plays it with simple conviction, and it works.

You might think I’ve put this film on a pedestal with greats like “Lawrence Of Arabia” (1962) and “Gone With The Wind” (1939).  Not quite.  But in the realm of Christmas-time movies, this ranks right up there with “A Christmas Story” and “Miracle On 34th Street” (1947).  “Elf” has enough going for it to make it a perennial favorite.   

Jon Faverau, who directed this film, has a spot for references to old Christmas films throughout “Elf.”  The film has a classical film-style which fits in perfectly with the film’s story.  The colorful stop-motion puppetry, the reference to Gimbels (from “Miracle On 34th Street”), and even the optical wipes are fun nods to films past.  David Berenbaum’s script hits all the right notes.  And John Debney’s score is almost instantly recognizable. 

The entire cast of “Elf” is wonderful.  Deschanel is cute as Buddy’s romantic interest.  Who wouldn’t fall for her?  She’s got a sultry singing voice that reminds me of how Peggy Lee sang (and I mean that as a compliment), and she looks good in an elf costume.  I have my Zooey, my wife has her Ben, ahem, Affleck.  But Deschanel is the real deal in this film.  She plays off of Ferrell’s outrageous Buddy with an understated performance.  Others in the cast include Caan, Edward Asner as “Santa,” Bob Newhart as “Papa Elf,” and Mary Steenburgen as Caan’s wife, Emily.

You don’t have to be a cotton headed ninny muggins to enjoy “Elf.”  You could say that I’ve got a spot in my heart for this movie.  As long as my daughter doesn’t play it one hundred times before New Year’s Eve, I can easily place this on the DVD shelf with our other perennial Christmas classics.  Move over Rudolph.  “Elf’s” comin’ to town.     
Bill Kallay

Photos: © New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.
DVD Quick Glimpse



A new Christmas classic!

Director: Jon Faverau  

Cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Edward Asner & Bob Newhart     

A few nice Christmas gifts and games


Picture: Good
Sound: Very Good

My family loves this movie

Aspect Ratio (1.85:1)

Dolby Digital 5.1

November 16, 2004
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