Justly celebrated for his “Saturday Night Live” impersonations of Janet Reno and President Bush, Will Ferrell has made less of an impression on the big screen.
He's had his moments, as the fashion dictator Mugatu in “Zoolander,” as the assassin Mustafa in the “Austin Powers” movies and earlier this year as a middle-aged frat boy in “Old School.” But the new Christmas fantasy “Elf” represents his first true starring role.
The good news: he does his best to locate the fun in playing Buddy, an apparently orphaned human raised by Santa’s elves at the North Pole. When he runs away to find his real father, the movie turns into a mildly amusing fish-out-of-water comedy, and Ferrell pulls some laughs from the character’s endearing naivete.
The not-so-great news: the development of this storyline is doggedly conventional. Indeed, the script by David Berenbaum (also responsible for Disney’s upcoming “Haunted Mansion”) often feels like a by-the-numbers rehash of “Miracle on 34th Street.” The New York scenes have merely been moved from Macy’s to Gimbels, where the sugar-driven elf-man finds a home away from home in the toy department.
Buddy also becomes friends with a destitute, spiritually exhausted girl, Jovie (charmingly played by Zooey Deschanel), who showers at work because she can’t pay her water bills. Will she be charmed by his goofy innocence? Will he fall for her? Does Santa (Edward Asner) make naughty and nice lists?
The narrator is Ferrell’s foster father (an inspired Bob Newhart), who sends him on the mission to find dad (James Caan). This soul-deadened publisher of children’s books is on Santa’s permanent naughty list and doesn’t realize his relationship with a long-gone girlfriend produced a son. Their baby landed in an orphanage, and Santa inadvertently adopted the boy when he crawled into his bag of toys during a Christmas Eve visit.
Good visual gags
The director, Jon Favreau, who created “Swingers” and its spinoff, “Made,” makes droll use of the North Pole sets and the elves’ code of ethics. He has a knack for throwaway visual gags: Ferrell posing like Bigfoot in Central Park, Caan bargaining with a tiny and self-important author of existential children’s books, Ferrell pressing the buttons for all the floors in the Empire State Building’s elevator because the result looks “like Christmas tree.”
Favreau also makes deft use of seasonal and novelty songs, slipping Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” into the background, and turning “Baby It’s Cold Outside” into something like an old-fashioned musical number. The attention to musical details almost pays off in a finale that depends on song to give it an inspirational boost. It might have worked if the ending weren’t so ruthlessly predictable.
“Elf” is so similar to the dozens of Christmas movies that turn up on television every night between now and year’s end that it’s unlikely it will still be playing in theaters by Christmas Eve. Ferrell and Deschanel achieve a lovely chemistry, and the rest of the actors couldn’t be more appropriately cast, but the script plays like a first draft.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com