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Okay, I admit I don't really care for Will Ferrell, the "laugh at the man-child" brand of comedy has never appealed to me, and it makes me cringe both inwardly and outwardly when a character humiliates himself.

That said - I probably wasn't the best person to send to a screening of Elf. From my first agonized viewing of the preview some months back, I'd been determined to sit this one out. I've always associated Ferrell with Jim Carrey and the "funny faces" school of acting. Carrey, to me, is an utterly insincere actor, and I never believe him for a moment. No matter what emotion he's portraying, it's always just that, a portrayal. When I see Ferrell, I expect the same. Funny faces with no depth.

Let me just state for the record that I had many cringe moments, and that Will Ferrell succeeded on getting on my nerves. Determined to ram Christmas spirit down our throats, his toothy grins and rolling eyes reminded me more of a frightened chimpanzee than a gentle Christmas elf. I half expected him to leap off the screen and start flinging fruitcake at the panicking audience.

However…those moments were surprisingly few and far between. Director Jon Favreau crafted an uneven but surprisingly winning movie that somehow succeeded in endearing Will Ferrell to me. As I write this I'm trying to pinpoint the moment when I ceased to hate him. I think it began when the movie opened on, of all people, Bob Newhart in elf garb. I was not expecting Bob Newhart. That man has the magical power of instantly disarming all my slings and arrows, and reducing me to a cuddly puppy state. "Bob Newhart's in this? Oh no! How can I be cynical? Oh God, he's doing the stuttering thing. Must…scoff…must... Tell me a story Uncle Bob!"

So yeah, I can't hate a movie with Bob Newhart in it.

If you've seen the preview you know that Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human raised by Christmas elves in the North Pole. Reared by kindly stuttering Bob Newhart, Buddy is ignorant of his human heritage. Although he meets quota in Christmas spirit and exuberance, he's a failure at toy making, and an object of pity to the rest of the elves.

When he overhears some elves clucking over his humanity, he goes to his adopted father for the truth. Newhart explains Buddy's background, shows him a picture of his parents, and gives him the bad news - his mother is dead and his father is on The Naughty List. Realizing he doesn't fit in with the other elves, he gets Santa's blessing (Santa - a decrepit Ed Asner, what's the world coming to?) and sets off on foot to New York City. What is it about New York and Christmas movies?

Here we veer into standard fish-out-of-water territory. Buddy is an innocent abroad in a strange and wonderful land. He encounters standard New York hostility, especially in the form of his workaholic father, played by James Caan. Caan, credited only as "Buddy's Biological Father," is an editor of children's books for a publisher quartered in the Empire State Building, and we're treated to the lovable personas of Andy Richter and Kyle Gass as his minions.

Buddy is initially rejected by his father and poses as a department store elf in the local toy store, where he brings over-the-top Christmas cheer to those miserable retail drones just trying to make it through the season. One of the drones is Jovie, played by Zooey Deschanel. Initially disturbed and a bit unnerved by Buddy, she inevitably warms to his childlike charms.

I think the scene that finally tipped me over into pro-Ferrell territory is between these two. Having no place else to go, and possessing an elven sense of industry, Buddy spends the night turning the department store Santaland into a holiday extravaganza. When Jovie comes into work early to shower, Buddy is drawn to her shower singing. My favorite part of Elf is the sight of Will Ferrell sitting on the sink in the women's bathroom dreamily singing under his breath along with Deschanel's lovely rendition of "Baby It's Cold Outside." It's simple and sweet, and a highlight of the movie.

There isn't much of a main plot in Elf, it's really just a couple of character driven subplots stuck together. Buddy has to find and win over his father, and gain the heart of Jovie. "Dad" needs to come up with a winning children's book to save his job, while struggling with the new addition to his family. Santa needs to finish his Christmas rounds in a world low on Christmas spirit, the juice that makes his sleigh fly. You didn't think we could have an elf movie without someone "saving Christmas," did you?

Over all, Elf is more than it needs to be. There are lots of little gems that totally delighted me, Ferrell was only occasionally obnoxious, and the story held together enough to keep me engaged. There were no talking animals, sparkly showers, or Dudley Moores, and the movie took itself with a grain of salt, fending off the saccharine that so often flavors holiday fare. Kids will love it, and if we're feeling forgiving, the rest of us might too.


Marin Carpenter

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