If you’re looking to get in the holiday spirit, check out “Elf.” This PG movie, which opens nationwide today, hearkens back to classic Christmas films and manages to capture some of that magic.

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human raised as an elf at the North Pole. When Buddy learns that he is a human (the elves had made excuses for his size to protect him), he decides to travel to Manhattan in search of his biological family. Adventures ensue, and Buddy eventually plays a pivotal role in helping to save Christmas.


The cast is quite good: Bob Newhart plays Papa Elf; Ed Asner appears as Santa Claus; Mary Steenburgen puts in her usual good work as Buddy’s stepmother. If there’s a weak link, it’s James Caan, who plays Buddy’s long-lost father.


Caan is in unfamiliar territory with this role. He’s usually a wacko, and he’s better at that than playing father to a man who thinks he’s an elf. Some of his moments just don’t ring true. But Ferrell more than makes up for it.


Ferrell plays Buddy with a childlike innocence that seeps into hilarity at moments. Whether he’s putting a star on a Christmas tree or throwing snowballs, Buddy does things his own way.


He goes to Gimbel’s department store (a la “Miracle on 34th Street”), contemplates the frigid water from his perch on a bridge (a la “It’s a Wonderful Life”), talks with a snowman (a la the Rankin/Bass productions of Rudolph and Frosty), and much more that calls to mind Christmas movies of years past.


Significantly, the film remains PG—a conscious decision by director Jon Favreau and New Line Cinema to target as many folks as possible during the holiday season. There’s plenty of physical humor for Ferrell to monkey around with, but it never becomes overtly crude or just plain stupid.


The set design for scenes involving the elves is a pole apart from what one might expect, but it’s quite clever. Production designer Rusty Smith used colorful elf costumes against a drabber background, creating a vibrant texture that will appeal to both children and adults.


To create the illusion of size differential between Ferrell and other actors playing elves, the filmmakers eschewed digital effects in favor of an older technique known as “forced perspective.”


This approach allows actors to appear larger and smaller in relation to each other vis-à-vis their positioning in front of the camera—and through clever set design.


The technique doesn’t disappear into suspended disbelief, but it works because the movie has adopted a certain referential quality that actually makes the film more enjoyable.


“Elf” delivers some genuine laughs and is diminutive only in name. It’s populated by giants like Bob Newhart and Ed Asner, who help make this Christmas yarn fun for all ages.


If you can’t make it to New York—or the North Pole—this Christmas, “Elf” is the next best thing.


Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.


Visit the movie’s official Web site.


MPAA Rating: PG for some mild rude humor and language

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: David Berenbaum

Cast: Buddy: Will Ferrell; Walter: James Caan; Santa Claus: Ed Asner; Papa Elf: Bob Newhart; Jovie: Zooey Deschanel; Emily: Mary Steenburgen.



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