For once, popular opinion is correct: Judge Patrick Naugle really is a cotton-headed ninny-muggins.
"You sit on a throne of lies!"—Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), Elf
In the pantheon of Christmas movies, none may be quiet as beloved as director Bob Clark's funny, nostalgic A Christmas Story. And if you've ever wondered what happened to little Ralphie, your chance is finally here! One time child actor Peter Billingsley showing up in director Jon Favreau's holiday film Elf is just one of the many joys this Will Ferrell comedy has inside New Line Cinema's two-disc set. Also starring legendary comedian Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, and Mary Steenburgen, Elf spreads its infectious Christmas cheer on DVD this holiday season!
Facts of the Case
Elf opens with a kindly old elf (Bob Newhart, In & Out) telling the story of Buddy, a human raised by elves with a big heart and an even bigger pair of shoes. It seems that Buddy (Will Ferrell, Old School, Saturday Night Live) crawled inside Santa's (Edward Asner, Mary Tyler Moore) bag of toys years ago while the jolly fat man was visiting a local orphanage. Having a warm spot in his heart for kids, Santa keeps Buddy and raises him at his workshop among the elves. When Buddy discovers that he is really a human and not an elf, he sets off from the North Pole on a journey to find his real father, Walter (James Caan, The Godfather), in New York City.
Buddy sticks out like a sore thumb in the big city, decked out in his yellow tights and pointy elf hat. In the city, Buddy finally meets his father, but finds that he doesn't warm the idea of having a full grown son who keeps telling him he's an elf—and to make matters worse, Buddy's father is on Santa's naughty list! Buddy eventually ends up at Walter's house with his wife (Mary Steenburgen, Back to the Future Part III) and their young son. As Buddy attempts to win over his father's affections, he also finds himself falling in love with a sarcastic department store elf (Zooey Deschanel, Big Trouble) who begins to soften to Buddy's odd ways.
It will take all of Buddy's efforts to make Walter—and the whole city of New York—believe in the magic of Christmas!
I think it's pretty hard to make a good movie in a specific genre. While I mostly enjoy almost any horror movie that's released in theaters (reason: I have the movie tastes of a 15 year old after a dozen Jolt sodas), it's hard to make a "classic" horror movie. The same goes for comedies, dramas, and action movies…in fact, it takes a lot of work to make a mediocre movie, much less a really good one. A genre that seems particularly difficult to please is the holiday genre: For every It's A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, there are ten Santa Clause: The Movies.
And so it was with a heavy, hesitant heart that I popped in Elf into my DVD player. Though I'd heard good things about it and the film was a success at the box office in 2003, I was still a bit leery about seeing Will Farrell in a full-grown elf costume. This movie had the silent words "one note joke" written all over it. I mean, really—how long would the filmmakers be able to carry that specific gag until it was ground so far into the ground it may as well end up near China?
The answer is an hour and a half…? Luckily, director Jon Favreau (best known as an actor in Swingers and on TV's Friends) shows a deft, light touch for comedy without it going too over-the-top (and kudos to whoever's idea it was to have a Burl Ives look-alike snowman in the film). I laughed during Elf, something I wasn't really expecting. Will Farrell is very funny in this warm hearted, cheerfully goofy comedy that could have easily become a sour glass of eggnog. The reason Elf works is because you actually believe that Will Ferrell is one of Santa's little…err, big helpers. Ferrell could have easily have made Buddy to be an semi-retarded boy in a man's body, but opts for a gentler, much more humorous approach: While Buddy isn't the brightest biological bulb on the Christmas tree, he's not exactly stupid, either. I guess anyone who came to us claming he was from the North Pole and wore yellow tights would get the stink eye no matter how smart they acted. Ferrell's Buddy is filled with Christmas cheer and a true a sense of wonder (I especially liked Buddy's expressions when he discovered the wonder of pre-chewed gum on the railing of one of New York's finest subway stations).
A very humorous and eclectic cast of characters supports Ferrell's child-like antics. James Caan—a man not usually known for his warmth on-screen—is effectively grumpy as Buddy's real father. Mary Steenburgen looks radiant and is kindly as Caan's patient wife who offers her home to Buddy. And best of all is the inspired casting of Bob Newhart as Buddy's adoptive father, Papa Elf.
If Elf stumbles in any one place it's in James Caan's character arc—I just didn't believe that when he finally realizes what's import in life (family, love, et cetera) that it was truly a moment of divine epiphany. Other than that minor quibble, I feel that Elf may go on to become a true Christmas classic for decades to come. Here is a Christmas movie void of cynicism (mostly), brimming with laughs, and filled with lots of Christmas spirit. And remember: there is singing in the North Pole, no matter what the Gimble's manager tells you!
Elf is presented in a very attractive looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. New Line has pulled out all the stops to make sure this DVD transfer is near perfect for all the holiday fans out there. The colors are bright and evenly rendered, especially during the scenes at Santa's shop in the North Pole. The black levels are all solid and dark while dirt, grain and any other major defects are noticeably absent. In other words, this wonderful looking picture should please fans of the film. Also included on the second disc is a full frame presentation of the film, though it's not recommended.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English. Much like the video transfer, this sound mix is very good. There are many moments where both the front and rear speakers are engaged fully, especially when Santa's sled swooshes overhead. Fidelity and dynamic range are both in great shape while the music, dialogue and sound effects are all clearly heard without any distortion in the mix. Overall this is a very fine 5.1 mix by New Line. Also included on this disc is a Dolby Stereo mix in Spanish, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
New Line has made Elf part of their "Infinifilm" line, which means you can either watch the movie with the Infinifilm feature turned on, or just head to a separate menu and peruse through many of the extra features (these include little featurettes on Christmas, elves, the holidays in Hollywood, the special effects, Santa Claus, et cetera). If you're a fan of the film I'm sure you'll delight in all these little extras that give you more information on all things Christmas related (included: "Kids On Christmas," "Deck The Halls," "Santa Mania," "Christmas In Tinseltown," and a fact track). In total all this stuff runs around thirty minutes. If I have one complaint about New Line, it's that their Infinifilm line tends to be a bit tough to navigate sometimes. But the little red arrows make up for it (if you push them, they give you a surprise)!
Included in the meat of the extra features is an entertaining commentary track by director Jon Favreau and star Will Ferrell, deleted/alternate scenes that feature optional commentary by the director, a feature on the music from the film (including introductions by the director as well as snippets from the film sporting various music cues), and a bevy of behind-the-scenes featurettes: "Tag Along With Will Ferrell," "Film School For Kids," "How They Made The North Pole," "Lights, Camera, Puffin!" and "That's A Wrap." These short featurettes include interviews with the cast members (including Ferrell and director Favreau) and lots of information on what it took to bring Elf to the big screen.
On Disc Two, there's some fun stuff for the kiddies (or, if you're an adult, the kiddie inside you). An elf karaoke feature allows for a fun sing-a-long while a read-along storybook makes for a cute little literary addition. "Buddy's Adventure Games" include "The Race Down Mt. Icing," "Elf In The City," "Snowball Fight," and "Fix Santa's Sleigh." I played through a few of these games and found them to be less than stellar—then again, I guess once you're used to playing an Xbox, any game on a DVD seems less than stellar by comparison. Also included on this disc is a feature about how fanatical some people get during the Christmas season—like when folks put six Christmas trees up in their house (I'm talking about you, mama Naugle).
Finally, there is some DVD-ROM content, including a make your own storybook feature, a photo activity feature, script-to-screen info, an image gallery, and some printable activities for the kids.
Elf is a very cute movie and far better than this reviewer anticipated. While I wouldn't put it up there with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation or the highly underrated Bill Murray flick Scrooged, I do think that over the years it will become a staple in many households during the holidays. New Line has done a very good job on this DVD set for ages 2 to 92.
Elf is free to spread its Christmas cheer all year round!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary by Director Jon Favreau and Actor Will Ferrell
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