Elf (2003)

B- Note: This review was written by a guest critic. Jimmy Akin

Elves love to tell stories, or so Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) tells us at the beginning of this elf story. It is an unusual tale in that it is the other side of all the changeling stories that have circulated in folklore for centuries. Instead of being the tale of a fairy raised among mankind, it is the story of a human raised among elves.

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2003, New Line. Directed by Jon Favreau. Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness

Kids & Up*

MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Fleeting mild bad language.

The story begins thirty years ago, when a tiny baby snuck into Santa’s sack one Christmas Eve and found himself at the North Pole. Once his identity was determined, it was learned that he had been put up for adoption by his mother and that his father didn’t even know the child had been born. Rather than returning him to the orphanage, Santa (Ed Asner) allowed Papa Elf to keep the boy and raise him as his own.

Now the lad is full grown and on the verge of discovering his human identity — something that has thus far escaped him. Yes, Buddy Elf (Will Farrell) had wondered why he was so much taller than the other elves, why he couldn’t make toys with the prodigious speed that they do, and so forth, but it’s never quite clicked for him that he isn’t like the other elves because he isn’t an elf at all.

When he learns this fact, the pillars of his personal world shake, and they are shaken even more when he learns that his real father — his only surviving human parent — is a New York City business man whose callous treatment of others has earned him a place as one of the few individuals on Santa’s "Naughty" list. Faced with this terrifying revelation, Buddy decides to reclaim his human heritage by journeying to the Big Apple and finding his true family.

When he gets there, he learns that this family is larger than he expected it to be. Buddy’s father (James Caan) has married, and as a result Buddy now has a young half-brother. Unfortunately, he also learns that the businessman wants Buddy to have no place in his life and, indeed, he at first thinks that the ex-elf is simply a nut.

Undaunted by this rejection — and actually rather oblivious to it — Buddy finds himself caught up in the Christmas rush in NYC and becomes a de facto employee of Macy’s, where his North Pole skills prove valuable to the toy department for a time. During his Macy’s stint, Buddy also meets a girl (Zooey Deschanel) who awakens in him the human desire for romance.

The core of the movie, though, is Buddy’s relationship with his human father. Can the man be redeemed? Can he learn to care for Buddy — as well as the rest of his family? And can Christmas spirit be restored to a jaded New York City?

Of course, the Christmas spirit we are talking about here isn’t the real McCoy — the recognition that Jesus Christ is born, the kind that would make one want to sing "Joy to the world; the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!" No, it’s the Hollywood kind of Christmas spirit, involving only sentimental warm-fuzzies to fight the cold winder air of white Christmasses that never come in Hollywood. But still, it’s something.

Most Saturday Night Live-related movies are cursed, and the fact that Elf stars SNL alumnus Will Farrell would lead one to wonder whether this will be just another foul-mouthed, unentertaining waste of time. Fortunately, it’s not.

For a time, I thought the worst cuss in the movie would be "cotton-headed ninny muggings" (elves gasp when someone says this). Unfortunately, there is some actual bad language in the movie, but it is minor compared to what most movies contain these days. Indeed, it’s a pity that it even includes this, because the movie otherwise conspicuously sidesteps the unseemly on several occasions.

The plot is a little thin and drags a bit at times, but there is still a lot of clever, good-natured humor in it — particularly in the North Pole sequences — and Bob Newhart steals the show whenever he is on screen. Will Farrell is competent and entertaining as the cheerful, wide-eyed elf lost in the big city, and in the end the film delivers a warm, feel-good Christmas ending that will inspire the hope that even New York City can have Christmas spirit — at least of the Hollywood kind.

By Jimmy Akin, Comedy, Fantasy, Romance