Every once in a while comes a movie that makes you feel better about yourself and mankind. It makes you sit back and appreciate the world around you, and just feel greatabout being alive. While this isn’t quite that kind of a movie, Elf does fill you with a good dose of Christmas cheer, and sometimes that’s good enough. The original idea that lead to the story of Elf was the thought of a six foot tall man in an elf costume walking down the streets of New York City. From that image came the story of Buddy Elf (Will Ferrell), a human who, as a baby, stows away in Santa’s sack of toys and is whisked off to the North Pole. There he is adopted by the elves and raised as one of them, but as he grows to human size he starts to realize he doesn’t fit in. So he heads for New York City to find his biological father (James Caan), a scrooge-like businessman who needs a refresher in holiday joy. Along with his newly found family and a cute department store “elf” (Zooey Deschanel), Buddy strives to spread Christmas cheer and find a place where he belongs.
Elf is one of those rare movies that manages to turn into a classic film the second the first image hits the screen. Between its cozy feel-good story, and tributed remembrance of holiday specials and movies of the past, the film immediately captures the Christmas spirit, making it a movie that will become a time-honored tradition to view each holiday season.
A large part of that success belongs to director Jon Favreau, who really makes the story of Elf something the audience can relate to. While the story borrows heavily from other well known tales (most obviously “A Christmas Carol” and “The Ugly Duckling”), Favreau also brings a certain amount of visual nostalgia to the movie. The North Pole feels like the North Pole because we’ve seen it presented this way so many other times. The outside of Santa’s shop looks like something out of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials of old, complete with stop-motion animation creatures. While New York City definitely contrasts with the whitewash buildings of the North Pole, it’s not the grimy, gritty New York depicted in so many other films. This would perhaps be the same New York City from A Miracle on 54th Street or some similar movie. Favreau makes the same choices with sound as well, using classic Christmas music more often than modern renditions of the tunes, adding a familiarity for the ears as well as the eyes. By borrowing from familiar iconography and sound, Favreau builds a movie that makes people feel warm inside.
The other large factor in the movie’s success is Will Ferrell. It’s hard to believe the actor responsible for streaking in Old School and bringing the world Ron Burgandy in Anchorman could play the sweet innocent Buddy Elf, but Ferrell completely captures the character. He plays the part for laughs, with gags ranging from the physical -bumping his head into everything his oversized body comes into contact with in the North Pole - to the lyrical - singing his love for his father and of his trip to New York - to the intestinal - coming into contact with leftover chewing gum on a rail. However, Ferrell doesn’t limit the character to just being comedic. There’s an emotional side to Buddy - a sadness when he doesn’t fit in, covered up by his absolute love of Christmas and his desire to spread that love to everyone in the world. Ferrell is an absolute pleasure in this role, and no matter what else his career holds for him in the future, he’s got one role under his belt that people will always remember.
The rest of the cast deserves honorable mention as well. Favreau collected a perfect group and plays each role to it’s specific actors strengths. Zooey Deschanel is beautiful as Jovie, and Favreau takes advantage of her lovely voice with several short songs. James Caan is the perfect Scroogish businessman who can’t quite adjust to having a newfound son who was raised by the elves. Who better to play Santa than Ed Asner, who tackles the role with a big helping of gruff and grit, rather than a overly jovial St. Nick. Faizon Love, Mary Steenbugen, Peter Dinklage, and Bob Newhart are all worth mentioning as well.
While the plot to Elf suffers a bit towards the end of the film, making certain character transitions too abruptly, it is a Christmas film with a lot of heart, and for that I’m willing to overlook its shortcomings. It’s not often you get a film that makes you feel this good about the holidays. Elf is on my must-play list for the holiday season from now on. The first thing that sticks out about the DVD for Elf (other than its shiny foil slipcase) is how family friendly the release is. With the film offered in both Widescreen and Fullscreen versions and with bonus material appropriate and interesting to all ages, Elf proves it knows its target audience and does right by them, even if navigating that bonus material may be a tad irritating.
I’ve previously expressed my frustration with New Line’s “Infinifilm” releases, and unfortunately this one is no different. The bonus material is offered through the “Infinifilm” version of the film, so you can watch the movie and when relevant bonus material is available a logo will appear on screen allowing you to branch away from the movie and watch the material. With such a pleasant movie, branching away is just annoying. Fortunately the extras are also available outside of the “Infinifilm” version of the movie, however you have to go through an extra layer or two of menus to get to them. This becomes frustrating as you try to remember what featurette was where, and what you’ve watched and haven’t seen. Accessing the bonus material this way collects short tidbits into several different categories and presents them together in a mini-featurette. Unfortunately the tidbits then feel like they end abruptly as each segment ends and the next one begins. As I’ve said previously, I’d much rather see these extras constructed into one fluid featurette than feel like I’m watching eight or nine short tidbits collected together in a manner that doesn’t flow well at all. Still, that major gripe aside, the bonus material here is fantastic, and the pop-up book theme of the menus is a lot of fun to watch and interact with.
The key focus of the behind the scenes material seems to be “it takes a village”. All of the extras in this section show just how many different people and jobs there are in order to make a movie happen. I’m really impressed that so many interviews with so many different people were put into this, instead of the regular “director, actor, producer and that’s it” approach. Crew members ranging from grips to visual effects assistants to cameramen get a chance to explain what they do and how it affects the movie. It adds to the family feel of the DVD, reminding us that the cast and crew act as a family while the movie is being made, and that there are many more people than the faces we see on screen responsible for bringing us entertainment like Elf. Other behind the scenes extras focus on more specific elements of the movie, such as the stop motion animation, the creation of the North Pole, or the forced perspective technique used to make Buddy look so big in the world of elves. None of these extras focus too much on the director or producer though, letting each person responsible explain how the movie goes together.
The widescreen version of the film features two separate commentary tracks, one by John Favreau and the other by Will Ferrell. Both commentary tracks suffer from the same problem: one person talking about the film. While both Favreau and Ferrell are typically entertaining, they come across in the commentary as very bland and somewhat boring. There’s some good information in Favreau’s track, but Ferrell seems a bit lost in his, and it’s a brief reminder of why Ferrell was originally declared possibly the worst cast member in the history of Saturday Night Live. There’s no character here for Ferrell to hide behind, and no camera to catch his visual antics, leaving only a voice that seems out of its element. Given the rest of the disc seems set on reminding us how many people are involved with making a movie, it’s an odd choice to have solitary commentary tracks. At the very least combining Farrell and Favreau into one track would have been wise.
The disc also includes several deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary by Favreau. All of these scenes are just as good as anything in the movie, and most of them were either cut for time or to maintain a family friendly tone to the movie. It’s great to see them on DVD, even if the effects aren’t done for a scene with a stop-motion character, leaving a stand in looking a bit silly. Between the behind the scenes material and these deleted scenes, this set far surpasses many other DVD releases out there.
And then there’s the second disc.
That’s right, all of that material I’ve been raving about is just on the first disc, which is with the widescreen presentation of the movie. The second disc contains the fullscreen version, and as you might expect, the bonus material is more kid oriented.
In the “Fun ‘N’ Games” section you get to the heart of the material for the younger set. Elf Karaoke offers several Christmas tunes available with an elf chorus singing the words or just the music. Scenes from Elf play in the background as the words appear on screen. Read Along - Elf - A Short Story of a Tall Tale gives a storybook version of Elf, which kids can have the disc read to them while they read along with the words on screen. Finally there’s a set of games in Buddy’s Adventure. These range from a snowball fight to a race down Mt. Icing. The games are easy to navigate (a complaint I usually have with DVD games) and if you beat them all you get access to the “Secret Elevator ‘o’ Fun”. I will warn you though, I can play most games on the X-Box and Playstation with the best of them, and I had trouble finding Buddy’s way around New York in “Elf in the City”. The younger crowd might get frustrated with some of these games over time.
Finally comes the “Beyond the Movie” features. These are short featurettes focusing on different elements of Christmas - Santa Claus, Christmas in Hollywood, and kid’s takes on holiday topics. The most bizarre of these focuses on people and communities who decorate their houses for Christmas with such devotion and obsession, they make the people in Trekkies look normal. Unlike the behind the scenes material or the deleted scenes, one viewing of these “Beyond the Movie” extras will undoubtedly be enough... more than enough on at least one of them.
Elf may not get a lot of play time in my house for ten months of the year, but I can guarantee it will be watched every holiday season. “Infinifilm” navigation aside, I’ll probably take the time to watch most of the extras each holiday season as well. The deleted scenes add more frivolity to the movie, and the behind the scenes materials build on the feeling of goodness the movie establishes. One of these days I might even find Buddy’s way to the Empire State Building and enter the Secret Elevator ‘o’ Fun.
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