Friday, November 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Likable Ferrell enlivens tall tale of 'Elf'

Seattle Times movie critic

"Elf," a family-friendly holiday comedy featuring Will Ferrell as a really tall elf, inspired mixed reviews from my moviegoing party of two. The third-grader accompanying me (whose opinions were, so I'm told, entirely uninfluenced by the fact that he was eating popcorn at the multiplex on a school night instead of doing his homework) loved it. I, who didn't get much of the popcorn, was less enthralled; this may or may not have to do with lingering trauma over Ferrell's naked, jiggly jogging in "Old School."

But enough of the butt; there's no skin in "Elf," and it's perfectly fine for non-traumatized viewers of all ages. Ferrell plays Buddy, a statuesque elf in a green velvet suit who learns, to his chagrin, that he's actually human. Santa (Ed Asner, in a spot-on bit of casting), along with Buddy's adoptive elf father (Bob Newhart, agreeably stammering), encourage him to head to New York to look up his real dad, so off he goes, arriving in Manhattan just in time for the holiday shopping season.

Though Santa's given him a bit of advice about the real world ("When you see gum on the street, leave it there — it's not free candy"), nothing has prepared Buddy for what he sees — and for the fact that his dad (James Caan), a permanent resident on Santa's "naughty list," doesn't want him around. But the Christmas spirit, not to mention Buddy's uncanny knack for creating inexpensive holiday décor, ultimately prevails. By the time Buddy's new girlfriend Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, sweet as a candy cane) sings "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," New York has become a snow-globe wonderland.

Movie review

"Elf," with Will Ferrell, James Caan, Edward Asner, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen. Directed by Jon Favreau, from a screenplay by David Berenbaum. 95 minutes. Rated PG for some mild rude humor and language. Several theaters.

This sort of movie lives and dies on its lead character's performance — if we don't like the elf, there's no point to "Elf." And Ferrell, in his extra-long yellow tights, is at his most likable here; ingratiating and fairly bouncing with enthusiasm, as if his outsize frame can barely contain his glee. He grins and shrieks and bugs out his eyes, yet it's all carefully controlled; there'd be room for another performer to step up and meet him, but nobody outside of the North Pole does so. Asner and Newhart are very funny and underutilized; Caan, who gets much more screen time, has nothing to play. (Peter Dinklage, so good in "The Station Agent," gets laughs in a brief scene — but if you've seen "Elf's" ubiquitous trailer, you've seen it all.)

Director Jon Favreau ("Made"), drenches the film in holiday cheer; there's a sweet nod to the animated classic "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," with a talking snowman who looks like Burl Ives (though he sounds more like Ray Charles). "Elf," with its muddy photography and occasional blandness, won't make you forget that film, but thanks to Ferrell, it's a tolerably sweet holiday treat.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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