As decreed by the Hollywood branch of the North Pole Transit Workers Union, the regulation holiday movie season shall include at least one Christmas-themed comedy accessible to children but pitched to adults -- a binding agreement sometimes known as the ''Santa Clause'' clause or the ''Grinch'' pact. Said entertainment should be family-friendly and support positive values of tolerance, inclusiveness, and conflict resolution, yet slip in enough ''SNL''-style jokes and actors to simultaneously please ''SNL''-bred viewers and youngsters who enjoy a good burping scene. Producers are encouraged to take a playful swipe at the dreary commercialization of seasonal themes -- in a commercially viable seasonal movie.
Under such contractual constrictions, Elf is much funnier and more nimble than a ''Jingle All the Way'' placeholder needs to be: It's anti-ironic, with hipness hung like ornaments. This is, after all, a fractured fairy tale in which Bob Newhart dons a pointy hat to play the majordomo of Santa's helpers; Ed Asner steps in as Claus himself; James Caan growls as a grouchy children's book publisher; Zooey Deschanel sings ''Baby, It's Cold Outside'' in a licorice cabaret voice; and ''The Station Agent'''s Peter Dinklage becomes a preening, famous author who is not amused at being called a dwarf by a six-foot-something guy who calls himself an elf.
And such an elf! The disarming comedic tone -- silly and novel in its lack of cynicism -- is driven by the fearless, cheerful unself-consciousness of Will Ferrell, a big man last seen streaking (all too unself-consciously) through ''Old School.'' Now wearing lime green polar couture and a humiliation-proof grin, he's a sight for dour eyes.
As a human child accidentally spirited away in Santa's toy sack, Ferrell is named Buddy and raised by elves, growing up (and up and up) among neighbors who top out at two feet tall. And the star throws himself into character with unflappable seriousness. Feeling like a misfit -- a classic Christmas-movie condition -- Buddy treks to New York City to find his real father (Caan).
Directed by Jon Favreau, trading the single-guy smarm of his hilarious ''Swingers'' script for family-man riffs, and written by David Berenbaum (''The Haunted Mansion''), ''Elf'' finds a perilously easy target in the sham of store-built Santalands. (It's on the selling floor that Buddy falls in love with Deschanel's jaded seasonal employee.) And even Farrell's energy stalls in a Tinker Bell-ish scene requiring a community outpouring of holiday spirit to propel Claus' stalled sleigh. But for every standard-issue plot point (e.g., Buddy reignites childish wonder in his Santa-denying half brother, played by Daniel Tay), there's a welcome stocking stuffer. In a sequence of beautiful stop-motion animation, for instance, octogenarian animation legend Ray Harryhausen himself supplies the voice of a polar bear cub. Cool -- and I don't just mean polar.More Holiday Movies