Elf (2003)

[8.0]

Will Ferrell stars as a human adopted by Santa Claus and raised as an elf in this absurd but disarmingly sweet comedy from director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Mandalorian). At the ripe old age of thirty, Ferrell’s character learns he’s really a human and departs the North Pole to find his birth father in New York City. But convincing dear dad (James Caan) to warm his curmudgeonly heart and get off Santa’s naughty list turns out to be harder than any elf can handle.

Elf gets terrific mileage from its ‘fish out of water’ angle, with Ferrell reacting like an overgrown man-child to things he’s never experienced before — including escalators, city traffic, and impostor shopping mall Santas. Unlike a lot of star comedy vehicles, Ferrell never feels constrained by David Berenbaum’s screenplay. High points include the retro-stylized opening act at the North Pole, where Ferrell’s size among the elves delivers a series of memorable gags. Bob Newhart is brilliant as Ferrell’s elf foster father, and Favreau scores a nostalgia win by populating the North Pole with stop-motion animated animals (stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen even voices a sage snowman).

Sealing the deal and making Elf a holiday classic is an exciting third act that becomes unexpectedly emotional when Santa (Ed Asner) needs Ferrell’s help to fix his downed sleigh. Many films collapse under cloying attempts to manufacture tears of joy, but Favreau and Ferrell make it look like child’s play. Turns out, if you really, really, really believe in fairies, you can keep movie magic alive.

With Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, and Peter Dinklage.

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