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New Line // PG // October 28, 2008
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 13, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Y'know, maybe I'm
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just not paying close enough attention, but this was the first year I noticed stores lugging out their Christmas displays before Halloween had even come and gone. I guess New Line was trying to get a leap on the holidays too, hammering out Elf on Blu-ray while the calendar was still flipped open to October. That's okay -- I'll take a little burst of Christmas cheer wherever I can get it -- but New Line did such a lousy job bringing this cute, playful comedy to Blu-ray that it feels like they just shoved a big lump of coal into my stocking.

For hundreds and hundreds of years, no human eyes had ever caught a glimpse inside Santa's workshop up in the North Pole. The man in the red suit has always been careful not be photographed or videotaped, but Santa wasn't keeping all that close an eye on his sack full of presents after dropping into an orphanage thirty years ago. A bouncing baby boy managed to slink his way inside, and after being inadvertently lugged all the way back to the North Pole, one of the elves (Bob Newhart) raised him as his own.

Even though he towers over all the other toymakers in the workshop, Buddy (Will Ferrell) doesn't really clue in that he's different from the other elves. Oh, but Buddy catches wind when he overhears a couple of elves ranting about how lousy this human is at making toys. His elven pop tells Buddy all about his real father: a kiddie book exec in New York named Walter (James Caan). Buddy sets out for the Big Apple to meet his father with all sorts of daydreams about ice skating and ticklefights bouncing around in his noggin.

Here's the thing, though: Walter is a gruff workaholic who's...gasp!...on the naughty list, and he's too busy blindly signing off on half-finished books to pay attention to someone so clearly off-his-rocker like Buddy. He's shoved off to the department store across the street where he's mistaken for an employee and falls head-over-heels for Jovie (the always swoonworthy Zooey Deschanel), a dryly sarcastic cashier whose company-mandated getup looks to Buddy like someone who digs elven culture. As the completely naive Buddy fumbles his way through life in
Le sigh.
the big city -- y'know, redecorating every square inch of Gimble's, duking it out with a department store Santa, sucking down fruit-flavored perfume, and recoiling at the terror of the escalator -- he and Walter manage to reconnect. Walter grudgingly takes this wide-eyed man-child under his wing, but it's not at the greatest time: profits are down, he's under a heckuva lot of pressure to pitch a hit book by Christmas Eve, and his family's disappointed that he spends every waking hour hard at work.

So...yeah. Romance! Intrigue! Action! Suspense! Elf squeezes all of that in with its playful, unrelentingly charming sense of humor. From the jittery stop-motion animation up in the North Pole that looks back to Rankin-Bass holiday mainstays like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to a stream of intricate snowflakes that could've been snipped outta sheets of paper, Elf's early stretches look every bit like the Christmas classic that Jon Favreau set out to make. This proved to be a breakthrough role for Will Ferrell, and he really makes Elf what it is with his hopelessly sweet and innocent turn as Buddy. It's a sharply written and really hysterical fish-out-of-water story, and some of the...::sobs!:: emotional stuff near the end packs more of a wallop than I would've expected.

"Family movie" is usually code for "you know -- for kids", but Elf is a family movie in the truest sense. It's clever enough for parents to get somethin' out of it, it's sugary sweet for the kids, and its good-natured sense of humor ought to get a laugh out of anyone of any age, really.

I know what you're thinking, though: if I dug the movie so much, why does it say Skip It in the sidebar? Elf is the sort of movie I'd really like to tack a bold, italicized "Highly Recommended" on, but New Line did a really lousy job with this Blu-ray disc, digitally smearing away so much of the detail and clarity that it almost ceases to be high definition.

Yikes. Click on the screenshot below for a quick peek at just how much of a trainwreck Elf is on Blu-ray.

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Virtually every trace of detail and texture has been digitally smeared away, leaving the entire movie looking waxy and overprocessed. Edges are soft and poorly defined, and some patches with intricate patterns devolve into a blurry, indistinct smudge. Again, pop open that screengrab and look at the cast's hair, their non-existent pores, and, worst of all, James Caan's jacket. Isn't the entire point of a high definition disc to try to eke out...y'know, higher definition?

I don't think Elf would ever realistically be a reference quality disc -- even with all of this clumsy filtering, a few scattered shots manage to be even softer still, and it's grainier than usual for a major studio release. Still, I can't help but think that if New Line hadn't slathered Elf with so much noise reduction, there'd probably be a couple extra stars in the sidebar of this review. As it is, though, the filtering ravages the high definition video so badly that I can't recommend this Blu-ray disc.

Elf sounds better than it looks, thanks to a decent 16-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. The sound design isn't all that aggressive, leaning more towards stereo than an immersive 5.1 track, but that's okay. The surround channels are filled with music and jingling sleigh bells, and the rears liven up a handful of sequences like the hyperkinetic snowball fight and Santa's sleigh soaring across the sky. Bass response is solid when it's given the chance, beefing up the thump of Buddy continually tumbling over and the sleigh plummeting to the ground with a meaty low-frequency kick. Elf's dialogue is consistently clean and clear throughout. This is kind of an ordinary soundtrack and doesn't seem all that interested in straying past the front channels, but Elf's lossless audio sounds fine on Blu-ray.

Elf also packs on Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and subtitle streams in English, German, and Spanish.

This Blu-ray disc carries over most of the extras from the Infinifilm DVD. Getting the axe are introductions by Jon Favreau about some of the music used throughout the movie, a set of games, a read-along story, and a slate of a DVD-ROM extras that include a still gallery, a script-to-screen comparison, and a few additional bells and whistles aimed the junior set.

There aren't any high definition extras here, although to ease with the way some of this material is branched into the movie through the "Focus Point" feature, quite a few of them have been upscaled to 1080p.

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A few extras run throughout the entire length of the movie.
  • Audio commentary with Jon Favreau: The commentary with Elf's director is pretty solid. He spends quite a bit of time focusing on the visual effects and in-camera trickery, and since this track was recorded after the movie had come and gone theatrically, Favreau has a chance to reflect on its colossal success at the box office. A few of the highlights include casting a baby girl as the pint-sized Buddy, taking cues for this childlike man-elf from his own tyke, why he cast James Caan as Buddy's pop rather than a big-name comedian, shooting with pregnant reindeer, and pointing out just how big Elf's finale was in the original script.

  • Audio commentary with Will Ferrell: Ferrell's audio commentary is polite, likeable, and...kind of serious, really. Its biggest problem is that so many of the comments he makes are covered elsewhere on this disc, and he has a tendency to narrate plot describe what's happening on-screen instead of really talking about it. A few notes that stand out are what attracted him to the role of Buddy, the ensemble feel of Elf, his approach to comedy, and the way Favreau brought a stack of indie film actors into his big, mainstream movie.

  • Fact Track: This subtitle trivia track is kind of low-key, not popping up all that often. It seems to be aimed more squarely at kids, rattling off film terminology, touching on the history of the holiday, and spouting off random notes about the cast. There's really not enough here to recommend giving the fact track a whirl on its own, but it might be worth leaving running during one of the audio commentaries.

  • Focus Points: At certain points throughout the movie, this feature will toss a bright yellow disc up on the screen. Mashing a button on the remote veers off into some behind-the-scenes material, some of which is recycled from other extras on the disc. There is some unique footage in here, though, including the crew lugging a fake sleigh and reindeer around Central Park for easy reference, a peek at Will Ferrell's full body digital scan, a Steadicam shoot on the skating rink, and chats with some of the extras scattered throughout the movie.

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Elf piles on nearly an hour of behind-the-scenes featurettes.
  • Tag Along with Will Ferrell (7 min.): A camera crew follows Ferrell as he kicks off his day in hair, wardrobe, and makeup. There's a lot of behind the scenes footage scattered around in here, including a look at Buddy being flung around a flying sleigh on a bluescreen stage, the shooting of the snowball fight, and the scene in the dark, dank mailroom.

  • Film School for Kids (21 min.): Despite the title, "Film School for Kids" doesn't talk down to younger viewers who might be giving it a whirl. It's a really comprehensive look at the very different roles that go into putting a movie together, delving in much more depth than most making-of pieces do. This featurette grabs everyone from writers and directors all the way to video assist, dolly grips, and carpenters. Favreau also gives a sense of what the tone is like on the set.

  • How They Make the North Pole (12 min.): While touching on the look of the North Pole sets and the trickiness behind tackling the forced perspective photography to make Buddy tower over the elves, this other making-of piece also gives a fist-sized chunk of the crew a chance to step in front of the camera.

  • Lights, Camera, Puffin! (6 min.): My heroes and yours, the Chiodo Brothers (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) run through the stop-motion animation behind some of the critters in the North Pole, from sketching out the original concepts to working out the lighting on-set to animating their creations frame-by-frame.

  • That's a Wrap! (12 min.): The last of the behind-the-scenes featurettes takes a look at post-production...where a movie is really made. "That's a Wrap" touches on recording the score, belting out all of the Foley work, mixing the sound, hammering out the visual effects, and piecing it all together in the editing room.

I'm shameless...

The last few featurettes use Elf as a springboard to dive more into the holiday spirit.
  • Kids on Christmas (6 min.): Oh, kids say the darndest things! A gaggle of tykes field questions like who is Santa? How does the sleigh work? What was your favorite Christmas gift?

  • Deck the Halls (10 min.): A few folks from one end of the country to the other show off their hyperelaborate holiday decorations.

  • Santa Mania (6 min.): Kind of along those same lines, "Santa Mania" chats up a surfin' Santa, a costume maker stitching together some Santa suits, and the caretakers of a colossal Santa sculpture.

  • Christmas in Tinseltown (7 min.): Johnny Grant, the honorary mayor of Hollywood, gabs about...well, Christmas in Tinseltown, focusing mostly on the annual holiday parade from its early days all the way to today.

  • Elf Karaoke: (4 min.): This feature invites kids to sing along to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", "Deck the Halls", and "Jingle Bells", and it can be played with or without a cheery chorus of vocals.
...and last up...
  • Deleted scenes (11 min.): Elf piles on a reel of eight deleted and extended scenes, including Buddy flinging around a stack of elves during a hockey game, a longer look at Buddy being tucked in for the night, a different cut of the brawl with Peter Dinklage's smarmy writer, and a peek at a placeholder effects plate of Leon the Snowman before the stop-motion had been dropped in. Favreau offers optional commentary to explain why these eight scenes were shortened or snipped out entirely.

  • Digital copy: A digital copy of the movie has been dropped onto a second disc if you want to give Elf a whirl on an iPod or a Zune.

  • Trailer: Elf's theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.

The Final Word
As funny and charming as Elf is, New Line has smeared away far too much of the detail and texture on this Blu-ray disc for me to ever suggest that someone shell out twenty bucks for it. A competent Blu-ray release probably would've been highly recommended, but this...? Skip It.
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