Remember the days when Will Ferrell wouldn't do so many forced, unfunny comedies and did films that tried to bring some emotional weight to them? Well, Elf might not have had much emotional gravitas, but of all the films Ferrell's done since leaving Saturday Night Live, this one is the one I find myself watching more than the rest.
Written by David Berenbaum (The Spiderwick Chronicles) and directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man 2), Ferrell is the Elf in question named Buddy. Buddy lives at the North Pole and is a firm believer in Christmas, the feelings it brings and everything else associated with the holiday. Yet for his feelings and optimism, he doesn't seem to be as good of an elf as the rest are, and that's when Papa Elf (Bob Newhart, The Spiderwick Chronicles) sets him aside and gives him some surprising news. Not only is Buddy not an Elf (as he realizes through a funny montage of trying to live with and around items made for elves), but his Dad is a human who is on Santa's naughty list. Buddy decides to try and find his Dad who lives in New York City. And in the City Buddy runs into the usual stereotypical barriers that New York holds and does what he can to break through them to see if his Dad can rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.
Ferrell does a great job of selling the blind optimism that an Elf would bring in coming down from New York, and his comic sensibilities do get a little bit of time to show themselves off, and they're done to good effect. For that matter, going up and down the supporting cast of comedic talent, they seem to all have their moments here and there, whether it's Newhart's scenes with Ferrell, or Amy Sedaris (Strangers with Candy), who plays a receptionist at Buddy's father's office. In smaller roles in the publishing house include a Conan O'Brien sidekick (Andy Richter) and one-half of Tenacious D (Kyle Gass). As to Buddy's father, Walter is played by James Caan (Get Smart) in a bit of a casting masterstroke. Berenbaum's story deftly starts by portraying Walter as someone who's lost the meaning of Christmas and is a wayward soul, but Buddy's conflict about finding his father puts him in the same situation. In a way they both need to find each other, and their personality conflicts in the first and second act make for some pretty funny moments.
The movie appears to be full of excellent casting moments. Lou Grant himself, Ed Asner (Up) plays Santa and is perfect in the role. There's going to be a certain group of people that will identify him solely as that character, and he's great in it. Playing Ferrell's love interest (or at the very least a temptation in New York that Buddy has a crush on) is Zooey Deschanel ((500) Days of Summer), who plays Jovie, a store employee at Gimbels that Buddy sees dressed as an Elf for a Christmas display at the store. Buddy is intrigued by her but then in a moment when she's singing in the shower he becomes almost entranced. Their friendship is platonic though, in part because in this movie I'd doubt Buddy's character would know what to do, but mainly because it's something that doesn't occur to him. Why would it? He's only trying to spread Christmas cheer for all to hear.
The performances are helped by Favreau's ideas in making the film feel like a visually modernized version of a Burl Ives album. In the beginning when Buddy leaves the North Pole, he runs into creatures that could only be described as out of a Ray Harryhausen film (the legendary special effects creator would voice a character in this movie coincidentally), and Leon Redbone provides a nice homespun voice in the same way that Ives likely would have. In addition, Newhart is a nice voice to help guide Buddy's story along. Those types of things help Favreau get away with an overt John Woo tribute in the middle of a snowball fight. Elf doesn't feel out of place with the older Christmas films both because of its desire to be timeless and the cast wholly buying into this premise.
And it works exceptionally well, as Elf remains one of the better holiday films I've seen in recent memory and is tailor made to be shown every Christmas next to A Christmas Story or It's a Wonderful Life. It easily lets you leave whatever cynicism you might have at the door and rewards you by bathing you in a nice mix of humor and the holiday spirit and allows you to enjoy the ride.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Displayed in 1.85:1 high-definition widescreen using the VC-1 codec, the Blu-ray presentation of Elf is a little underwhelming. There's not too much image detail in the foreground (and there are moments of image softness throughout the film) and in the background there's only one or two moments of depth and clarity that could be remotely close to awe-inspiring. Skin tones are replicated accurately and the winter whites are bright without being really overblown, but blacks are left wonting a little and DNR is all over the film. I'd almost suggest using the standard-def copy of the disc for less distracting visual material.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track mirrors the film's activity fairly well, and the film is a little less robust than I remember. There are moments of subwoofer engagement in the final act and there are directional effects in the Gimbel's scenes to provide some level of immersion, but most of the action remains in the front speakers. Dialogue is consistent in the front channels and doesn't require too much compensation, and channel panning (when present) is effective. Solid albeit unspectacular listening here.
The disc and its extras are the same from the previous 2008 release. Feel free to consult Adam Tyner's review of the film, though I will say the disc is an exact reproduction of the release, right down to the digital copy which contains an expired redemption code. Boo indeed. As a tangent, I was stunned when I saw the extras on the disc and noticed that one of the visual effects producers (Joe Conmy) was a guy I went to high school with. You've got to have your civic pride when you can I guess, but I thought everyone around my area went to work for the government, so big ups to him for escaping that trap.
Everything else in the collectible tin of Elf relate to Christmas and include the film in some manner. There's a nice and tidy stocking for the winter season, then you have some gift adhesives with Buddy's face on them. There's a magnetic picture frame and magnet with some Elf-isms around it, and a five-song soundtrack sampler to boot to keep you in the holiday spirit.
This Ultimate Collector's Edition of Elf is likely the last version of the film to be headed to Blu-ray shelves in the foreseeable future. That said, if you purchased the Blu-ray when it first came out two years ago, you're paying a premium for some holiday and movie-related trinkets, and you've probably got a ton of them as is. However, if you're someone who's held out and hasn't bought Elf yet, this is likely your first choice for purchase. Whether you have or haven't seen the film, a Will Ferrell/Christmas-themed film makes for a better choice than one would expect, despite the shoddy video transfer. Worth buying if you haven't seen the film, or don't have it in the holiday library yet.