"Elf" is every bit as touchy-feely as "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and other old holiday TV specials it parodies. Which seems at least a bit disingenuous — what's the point of sending up something if you don't have the stomach to shred the inspiration?
Yet this charming little holiday comedy is the movie equivalent of comfort food. It may be short on belly laughs but it has heart, which is something we see all too rarely these days on the big screen. And at just over 90 minutes, it's one of the recent films that doesn't overstay its welcome.
How audiences will react "Elf" may depend on their tolerance for star Will Ferrell, who plays the title character, an orphan who, as a baby, sneaked into Santa's toy bag. As a result, he's christened "Buddy" and is raised at the North Pole by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart, who also serves as the film's dry comic narrator).
However, as Buddy gets older, he also grows considerably larger than the elves who surround him, so Santa (Ed Asner) has a hard time finding work he can do. Soon Buddy learns that he was "adopted," so he decides to head south — to New York, hoping to find his biological parents. Unfortunately, he discovers that his mother is dead and his Scroogelike father (James Caan) wants nothing to do with him.
Even more upsetting is the fact that New York is very short on Christmas spirit, a problem when the holidays — and Santa — finally arrive.
The material here is a bit soft, but it's directed with energy and imagination by Jon Favreau, who is making a drastic departure from his usual R-rated fare. It's also filled with amusing pop-culture references, such as a sight gag that will be appreciated by cryptozoology devotees.
Ferrell can be a bit much, but he brings a real sweetness and goofy likability to the part, toning things down at least a little. The real star here may be Zooey Deschanel, as winning as as ever playing an acerbic department-store elf who steals Buddy's heart. (Not to give anything away, but she's also got a great singing voice.)
"Elf" is rated PG for slapstick violence (pratfalls and a couple of comic scuffles) and mild peril, as well as some vulgar humor relating to bodily functions (including flatulence). Running time: 95 minutes.