WILL FERRELL makes a big elf.
That's pretty much the running gag in "Elf," Jon ("Swingers") Favreau's sweetly engaging comedy. As a human who was mistakenly raised by elves at Santa Claus's North Pole HQ, Ferrell is the real draw. His charming goofiness -- lit up by that wild-eyed, manic look -- makes the movie, rather than the writing itself.
What's not to like? You laugh at Ferrell's sight gags, his seemingly impenetrable naivete and the fact that he's a 6-foot-plus man in a green costume, all of which makes the movie more than pleasant enough for adults and children. But there's one teeny, tiny problem: It's only moderately funny. It could have been (and given Favreau's comic instincts, should have been) a riot. But hey, when an above-average PG-rated movie comes along -- in fact, when any PG movie comes along -- you consider it manna from Santa.
It's sleepy time for elf-raised human Buddy (Will Ferrell), who comes to New York City in search of his birth father (James Caan) in Jon Favreau's "Elf."
(Alan Markfield -- New Line Productions)
In the story, written by David Berenbaum, a human baby crawls into Santa's bag on Christmas Eve and finds himself not long thereafter in the North Pole. The old man (Edward Asner) and his legion of elves decide to keep him. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) raises him, and Buddy, as he comes to be called, grows up as an elf. Clueless about his human identity, Buddy assumes he's just a really, really big elf who has to fold up like a concertina to fit in most of his living spaces.
When Buddy learns of his human origins, he makes the journey to Manhattan in search of his real father, whose name is Walter Hobbs (James Caan). His old man, it turns out, has been on Santa's naughty list for ages. He's a shady type, an insensitive children's book publisher who's out of touch with wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and son Michael (Daniel Tay). Walter sure doesn't appreciate some overgrown nutball in tights and pointy shoes hugging him and insisting they're father and son. A quick paternity test later, Walter realizes Buddy is his son from an earlier liaison, but that doesn't make matters any better. Although he begrudgingly lets Buddy move in, there's hardly any love in the home.
After (not surprisingly) getting a job in Gimbel's Christmas department, Buddy meets and soon falls for fellow employee Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a withdrawn, jaded young lady who has a terrific singing voice but doesn't dare sing out loud in public. His evolution into non-elfish humanity begins.
Most of the movie is taken up with straight-ahead formula. Buddy gradually warms up his stepmother and half brother. Eventually, of course, he thaws his father's heart. And there's more: The spirit of Christmas is sadly flagging in New York City. He's going to have to do something to put the cheer back in yuletide, right around the time Santa comes through Manhattan to deliver this year's round of gifts.
But Ferrell provides just enough humor to get us through the familiar fare and enjoy the ride. For instance, he has no idea what to do with an escalator. He insists that Walter tuck him in to bed at night. And when he sees a guy in Gimbel's dressed as Santa, Buddy (who knows the real Santa very well) assumes a terrible deception is taking place.
"Paul, don't tell him what you want. He's a liar," Buddy tells the kid sitting on the false Santa's lap.
"You sit on a throne of lies!" he screams at the shocked man in red. It's that childlike conviction in his eyes that makes this scene so funny, and you look forward to the next, off-the-wall reaction from this adorable big lug.
ELF (PG, 90 minutes) -- Contains mildly rude humor and language and a briefly sensual moment when Jovie is in the shower and Buddy hovers outside. Area theaters.