Over the course of November, I was subjected to “A Bad Mom’s Christmas,” “Daddy’s Home 2” and “The Star” in rapid succession. These movies have two things in common. One, they are all ostensibly Christmas movies. Two, they’re all godawful, poorly written messes made with all the thoughtful consideration of a Christmas card with your name spelled wrong. When the best movie of any given bunch costars Mel Gibson as a hot shot former astronaut who has to learn to say “I love you” to his son, it’s enough for even Santa to let out a “Humbug.”
That’s part of the reason I was so excited for this Thanksgiving Break. Not only would I be able to spend time with family and gorge myself on buttery dinner rolls, but my family would be beginning our holiday season as always: watching Jon Favreau’s (“Iron Man”) “Elf.” Having grown up with the movie, I’ve always had an appreciation for it that, as I grew older, perhaps could have been chalked up to simple nostalgia.
There was something different when I sat down to watch “Elf” this time, though. Maybe it was the string of duds I was coming off enduring. Maybe it was the aligning of the sun and stars. Maybe it was the eggnog. Whatever the reason, halfway through the movie, I had to a realization. This wasn’t just a good Christmas movie. For increasingly cynical times, “Elf” is just about the most perfect Christmas movie imaginable. There’s an earnestness, heart and imagination to every frame that is almost unmatched.
At the center of it all is Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf, one of the best roles of his career. Ferrell has made a career out of playing man-children in movies like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” so the role of Buddy –– a human raised by Santa’s elves –– is perfect for him. But where parts like Ron Burgundy relied on audiences laughing at his more juvenile moments, the abject glee of Ferrell’s performance here makes it feel much more like we’re laughing with him. Even jokes that shouldn’t work, like an eleven-second long monster of a belch, do because of Buddy’s enthusiasm and Ferrell’s spot-on comedic timing.
Also key is Favreau in the director’s chair, wisely not allowing real world logic to get in the way of the story he’s telling. It’s a world where the North Pole is portrayed as a partially animated wonderland filled with stop-motion arctic puffins. Heavy use of forced perspective is used to allow for Ferrell to tower over the other elves in indoor sets that do terrific worldbuilding all on their own. There’s an obvious contrast between this world and New York City, but Favreau finds the perfect balance between the two tones.
He also makes sure to ground everything in Buddy’s story. The job woes of Buddy’s father, Walter (a perfectly deadpan James Caan, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) is something any of last month’s movies would have built entire agonizing scenes around. Here, they’re kept short and even add to the emotional heart of the film. There’s a thankful lack of dated references, as well, that’s positively refreshing given more recent comedies. Yes, “Daddy’s Home 2,” I’m sure all those “Sully” references will play just as well in 14 years as they do now.
But eventually, it all comes back to the heart of it. Buddy the Elf lives in a cynical world. The children’s books executives are money-grubbing jerks. Santa Claus (Ed Asner, “Up”) has become reliant on technology instead of Christmas spirit and, in a hilarious bit of implied backstory, has had at least one run-in with the Central Park Rangers. There’s no singing in the North Pole. It’s a world just like ours. There’s a certain catharsis, then, to watching Buddy’s optimism slowly win over everyone around him. The finale, bolstered by John Debney’s (“The Jungle Book”) terrific score, is nothing short of magical, and in a time when even Christmas feels in danger of succumbing to the monotonous daily grind of modern living, that little bit of magic and spirit “Elf” offers is something to hold onto.