Will Ferrell’s Elf is an unorthodox specimen among movies in that its middle third is the most remarkable. Most movies start competently, slow down in the middle, and finish with a gripping bang. This pattern dates back all the way to Star Wars, which opens upon an exhilarating chase through space, plummets with the introduction of its whiny protagonist Luke Skywalker, then soars again at the end in a heroic rebel mission to destroy the Death Star of the evil Empire. In contrast, the middle scenes of Elf are hilarious while its first and last 15 minutes are some of the worst ever filmed and a sad picture of how low our society has fallen.
Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, who is “actually a human, but was raised by elves” after he stowed away to the North Pole in Santa Clause’s bag as a baby. Though Buddy fails to match the efficiency of his fellow slaves (he can only build 85 etch-a-sketches daily, 900 short of his quota), he shares their unwavering sense of altruism and the so-called Christmas Spirit, based on 3 principles: 1. Treat every day like it’s Christmas, 2. Everybody can get on the nice list, and 3. Singing for all to hear is the best way to spread holiday cheer… none of which have anything to do with CHRISTmas, but anyway… Buddy’s elf father feels it’s time for him to enter the human world where he belongs, and so he sends our hero off to New York City to find his biological father, who incidentally is an evil corporate businessman with a position high on Santa’s naughty list, a man charged with murdering his employees’ wives, using foreign banks, sending his workers on luxury cruises overseas, and cheating on his taxes for a decade. At this point, Elf transforms from an insufferable kiddie flick into an uproarious fish-out-of-water story with Will Ferrell’s typical, sophomoric spin (potty jokes and gross slapstick abound). Buddy quickly shows himself to be as unsuited for the big-city lifestyle as George of the jungle. One of his funnier mishaps involves his first meeting with a mall Santa, an encounter that starts with giddy, childlike joy then deteriorates into anger and shock at the deceit propagated by this shameless impostor, who “sits on a throne of lies”. Buddy translates his loathing into action by swiping the man’s beard and provoking a vicious chase around the store that culminates in several Lego skyscrapers being smashed to shards. Elf’s humor mostly sticks to this formula of slapstick and oddball comedy, and the movie mimics Napoleon Dynamite in that its plot consists of many random episodes only loosely sewn together by a broader story arc. The movie excels when it doesn’t try to tell an emotionally satisfying story and focuses merely on crafting silly scenarios around its premise. Here are some of Elf’s better lines.
Buddy: (Upon entering a mail room): “This place reminds me of Santa's Workshop! Except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they want to hurt me.”
Miles Finch (a dwarfish man mistaken for an elf by Buddy): “You feeling strong, my friend? Call me elf one more time…”
Buddy: “He’s an ANGRY elf.”
Buddy: “We try to stick to the 4 main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup.” (his candy addiction becomes a running joke)
Elf falls apart when it starts to preach the true meaning of Christmas, as perceived by the spiritually dead filmmakers. The last 15 minutes of the movie are basically a song of worship to a false idol who represents a kind of deity not only to children but also to mind-numb adults. Spoilers henceforth: right before the climax, Buddy voluntarily leaves his home after ruining his father’s business conference. Wandering New York City, he happens to witness Santa crash-landing in Central Park; being a loyal elf, Buddy immediately dashes to the scene. Santa explains that that his sleigh fell after the machine’s Clausometer went dead. Santa’s nightly flight depends on belief in his existence, and by the looks of things New York City has a severe lack of belief, which seems like bull as the place is run by Michael Bloomberg, who gladly poisons his brain with all kinds of fairy tales. To save the day, Buddy, his girlfriend, and his younger brother have to “convert” enough doubters to Claustiantiy by singing the mother of all Satanic gospel songs, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Santa’s sleigh gradually gains altitude as more and more people join the chorus, finally leaping into the sky when Buddy’s cynical, grumpy dad casts off his chains of denial and “believes”. And so everybody is united in one cultish mob through the positive forces of collective idolatry and fuzzy feelings of Christmas Spirit. To say that Elf’s ode to Santa Claus is harmless drivel is an understatement: the movie’s final 15 minutes are a heinous love song to secularism and group-think, the 2 forces that most threaten America at large and the meaning of Christmas on a smaller scale. It. Repels. Me.
In summary, Elf is a great movie when it asks to laugh at its main character, not with him. The middle of the film concentrates solely on comedic effect and for that reason it succeeds, but the rest of it is an abysmal combination of every measure to devalue Christmas from every insipid TV holiday special.
Grade rating: B+ for the middle. As for the rest, to quote my favorite radio movie guys, Avoid It Like The Plague.