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Elf (2003)


Average Rating: 7/10
Reviews Counted: 178
Fresh: 149 | Rotten: 29

Critics Consensus: A movie full of Yuletide cheer, Elf is a spirited, good-natured family comedy, and it benefits greatly from Will Ferrell's funny and charming performance as one of Santa's biggest helpers.

Average Rating: 6.8/10
Critic Reviews: 44
Fresh: 34 | Rotten: 10

Critics Consensus: A movie full of Yuletide cheer, Elf is a spirited, good-natured family comedy, and it benefits greatly from Will Ferrell's funny and charming performance as one of Santa's biggest helpers.


Average Rating: 3.2/5
User Ratings: 903,906


Movie Info

For his sophomore stab at directing, actor/writer/director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Made), took on this holiday comedy starring Saturday Night Live-alum Will Ferrell. Ferrell stars as Buddy, a regular-sized man who was raised as an elf by Santa Claus (Edward Asner). When the news is finally broken to Buddy that he's not a real elf, he decides to head back to his place of birth, New York City, in search of his biological family. Elf also stars James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel, and Bob … More

PG (for some mild rude humor and language)
Kids & Family , Comedy , Special Interest
Directed By:
Written By:
Jon Favreau , David Berenbaum
In Theaters:
Nov 16, 2004
Box Office:
New Line Cinema - Official Site



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Critic Reviews for Elf

All Critics (178) | Top Critics (44) | Fresh (149) | Rotten (29) | DVD (37)

Sure, Elf feels a little too feel-good at the end, but what do you expect? It's a Christmas movie! Anything else would be the cinematic equivalent of finding coal in your stocking.

Full Review… | December 4, 2013
Associated Press
Top Critic

The cast wrings laughs out of David Berenbaum's script as if it were a damp washcloth, but even they have trouble selling frenetic button-pushing as the Christmas spirit.

Full Review… | December 4, 2013
AV Club
Top Critic

A disarmingly funny holiday comedy.

Full Review… | September 7, 2011
Entertainment Weekly
Top Critic

The film soon bogs down in fake hugs and a fakier climax involving Santa (Ed Asner) and his downed sled.

Full Review… | November 27, 2007
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

Some humour might sail over the heads of the very young, but there's a higher chuckle rate for the grown-ups than much dread 'family' fare.

Full Review… | January 26, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

I love watching Ferrell do his gangly, clueless shtick, and even here, there's something inherently funny about just seeing him in a big, green elf suit. There's something inherently funny about Ferrell -- period.

Full Review… | August 7, 2004
New York Magazine/Vulture
Top Critic

required viewing during the holiday season

Full Review… | January 7, 2014
7M Pictures

All told, Elf is undeniably cute, but not destined to become a Christmas classic. Nevertheless, children will love it.

Full Review… | December 4, 2013
Metro Times (Detroit, MI)

A gleeful, cracked fairytale.

Full Review… | December 4, 2013
Total Film

Dressed in a snug green outfit throughout and dispensing decorations, sugary snacks and a beaming grin, Ferrell is the life and soul of an otherwise unexceptional Christmas celebration.

Full Review… | December 4, 2013
Radio Times

It would be Scrooge-like to say mean things about the innocuous Elf, so I'll just point out that director Jon Favreau's film rarely reaches its full comic potential.

Full Review… | December 4, 2013
People Magazine

Feels like that rare instant Christmas classic.

Full Review… | December 8, 2012
Spectrum (St. George, Utah)

The third act's a little clumsy, but Elf brings the Christmas cheer and loads of laughs.

Full Review… | November 18, 2010

Peppy holiday favorite for both kids and parents.

Full Review… | August 31, 2010
Common Sense Media

A family-friendly, funny and heartwarming holiday film with a great heart that is well worth watching more than once.

Full Review… | January 27, 2010

Elf might be the last modern Christmas classic we see for a long time.

Full Review… | December 16, 2008
What Would Toto Watch?

The sentiment gets a little sticky towards the end, but many will consider this the perfect antidote to traditional Christmas fare -- especially those with a fondness for Ferrell's comedy.

Full Review… | December 5, 2008

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.

Full Review… | October 29, 2008
Decent Films Guide

Most will relate to its Christmas spirit, and there's unlikely to be a dry eye in the house during the emotional climax.

Full Review… | October 18, 2008
Urban Cinefile

[An] amusing, sweet-natured ode to retro-Christmas warmth and cheer...

Full Review… | August 7, 2008
Sacramento News & Review

The result is a turkey.

Full Review… | November 27, 2007

A delightful, slapstick adventure about a naïve innocent, woefully ill equipped to handle the rigors of life inside any impatiently unforgiving metropolis.

May 25, 2007

Audience Reviews for Elf

'Buddy the Elf, what's your favorite color?'

So a baby 'Buddy' climbs into Santa's sack and is whisked away to the North Pole by accident. Upon this discovery Santa decides to allow 'Papa Elf' to raise and look after him. Not too sure why they just didn't take him back to the orphanage where he crawled into the sack, seeing as they know he came from there. I guess him being an orphan it didn't matter?.

From here on Buddy grows up at the North Pole as a worker in Santa's workshop. He soon discovers by mistake that he is in fact human and not an elf (elfling?), so off he goes to New York to find his dad. Turns out Papa Elf knew all about his mum and dad and what happened to them...somehow, handy huh. Is that elf magic or Christmas magic that enabled Papa Elf to know everything? or am I missing something here.

So lets switch off the cynical part of my brain for a moment. The start of this film is a typical Xmas setting and scenario yes...but its so damn charming cozy and delightful you can't not love it. I mean sure you can't really go wrong with Santa's workshop at the North Pole really, but the added gem of seeing the odd bit of classic stop motion animation on one or two cheerful little characters really added another dimension to the whole sequence. It all looked like a whimsical children's story book, a snowy happy world with cutesy fantasy characters plodding around. Arctic Puffin and snowberries? adorable!!.

Once we reach New York and the real world the tone shifts to that classic American Xmas movie magic type scenario which we all know and love from various other movies. And what better setting for a cold wintry Xmas tale than New York. Yeah you know straight away all the famous landmarks and stores you'll be seeing, we know how this goes...but does it get old? no, never. New York is probably one of the most atmospheric places in the world at Xmas.

'I passed through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel'

This is basically a pure unadulterated Ferrell show, the whole thing is all about him as the innocent sweet childlike elf completely out of place in a dark sinister world. You have the obligatory love/hate issues with his real father played grumpily by Caan to great effect (you can feel the sense of shame and disdain he gives off for Buddy), all this of course plays out exactly how you think it will right from the start. Then you have all the visual tomfoolery that Buddy serves up as he comes to terms with reality and not the candy cotton world he's used to.

At no point did I actually get tired or bored of Ferrell and his cherub-like virginal antics. It is utterly predictable hokey Xmas pantomime guff of course but its just so enchanting and visually pleasing you can't look away. Everywhere he goes he elaborately decorates with Christmas cheer, baubles and shiny trinkets, he's like the Xmas monster. Some of the scenes where he learns about 'human' ways and everyday things/objects are highly amusing despite being so simple and kinda cheesy.

The board meeting where Buddy comes across the rather small elf-like Mr Finch (who is actually a little person) is hilarious. The way Buddy talks to the guy as if he were a very young child is easily a laugh out loud moment (must have been a South pole elf). I must also mention the brilliantly done forced perspective we see here and there. It looks like CGI but apparently its not, very clever and nice usage of an old trick.

This is probably one of Ferrell's best films and best performances...strange as it may seem. The whole idea is completely not original and is stuffed to the gills with every Xmas cliche you can think of. The only reason this film works is because of the infantile character that is Buddy the elf...errr human. The ending is totally sappy and cringeworthy but it still doesn't stop this Christmas juggernaut of yuletide spirit.

'Oh, I forgot to give you a hug!'

Phil Hubbs

Super Reviewer

One of the better Christmas movies. This is pretty cute and Will Farrell plays his adult moron (sorry, elf) role well. I love Zooey Deschanel as well - I would watch this just to hear her sing Baby it's Cold Outside. (I was so disappointed that on the She & Him Xmas album, the guy does the lead vocal on that song).
I pretty much hate kids movies, but I have watched this one many times and enjoyed it.

Nicki Marie

Super Reviewer

Buddy is a man raised who was by Santa and his elves up in the North Pole since he was a baby finally learns the truth about his life and sets off to New York City to find his biological father in this heartwarming, whimsical, and hilarious family comedy from Jon Favreau.

IThe premise is a fun take on the fish out of water tale, the script is mostly pretty sharp, and the central performance from Will Ferrell is one of the funniest comedic roles of all time. He absolutely sells it, and you honestly believe every minute of it, which is a Christmas miracle since it could have been so easy to mess up. He doesn't though, and it is an absolute joy to watch. James Caan is likewise pretty fun as Buddy's biological father Walter in the requisite Grinch/Scrooge type of role. Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Tay are decent as Walter's wife Emily and son Michael, and Zooey Deschanel is quite fine as Jovie- Buddy's love interest and co-worker at a department store. We also get Bob Newhart as Buddy's adoptive elf dad and Ed Asner as Santa. My favorite supporting character though has to be Faizon Love as the no-nonsense manager of the department store.

Like I said, the script is pretty sharp for the most part, but it's not perfect. The film is rather formulaic, and some of the stuff with Michael and Jovie fall a bit flat at times. The effects are mostly good, the music is fine, and overall this is a very delightful holiday film I solidly recommend.

Chris Weber

Super Reviewer

The single biggest problem with most Christmas films is that they have little or nothing to do with Christmas. We can argue about the pagan origins of Christmas paraphernalia until we are blue in the face, but beneath the gifts and the Queen's speech, like it or not, is a celebration of Jesus' birth, of God coming to Earth in human form to redeem Mankind.

The high point of Christmas films, from a British point of view, is Bryan Forbes' Whistle Down the Wind, a heart-breaking and profound restaging of the Nativity and Crucifixion containing all that is good about British and religious filmmaking. But for every film which gets it even half as right, there are a multitude of others which either nakedly celebrate commercialism, or settle for sentimentality when substance is what is needed. Like its uber-crass predecessor Jingle All The Way, Elf is a film which manages to fall into both traps, resulting in a comedy which is utterly wretched and virtually mirthless.

Elf is effectively a one-joke film stretched out for 90-odd minutes. The joke, in a nutshell, is that of a human who grows up thinking he's an elf, only to discover that he's not; he has to deal with the human world, and the human world has to deal with him. It's the kind of recurring gag which could run and run as a series of skits on Saturday Night Live - a fitting comparison, considering that's where Will Ferrell cut his teeth. On the evidence of this, he needs to go back and file them down some more.

Seen as how it's Christmas, let's at least attempt to be charitable. The production values on Elf are generally high for a comedy, as you might expect from a film costing $33m. More than that, there has been some thought put into the special effects. Most of the scenes featuring Ferrell interacting with the elves are shot using forced perspectives or trompe l'oeils rather than CGI. Jon Favreau uses the same techniques that were employed on The Lord of the Rings, which would have required more complex set-ups and set designs. Considering that many executives would have pushed for CGI for cost or time reasons, Favreau deserves credit for being willing to take the long way round.

But effects can only take you so far, and very quickly the novelty of these scenes wears off. The actual rendering of Santa's grotto is altogether cynical and shoddy; there is nothing particularly magical or childlike about factory line productivity or meeting quotas. The big problem is that the film views the childlike wonder of Christmas with a haughty, patronising air: it pretends that it's important and the true meaning of Christmas, while all the time keeping its eye firmly on the adults who are paying for the tickets.

While perhaps not as openly hollow as Jingle All The Way, Jon Favreau's film put its foot into the exact same traps. Its attempts at childlike wonder are undercut by its overreliance on adult gags, which suggest a real lack of confidence in the central conceit. If the writers had genuinely wanted to make a Christmas film that was suitable for children, they wouldn't have felt the need to fill it with gags about the publishing industry. This is not a family film in the traditional sense, where there is something for everyone: this is a film in which the adults will laugh at the in-jokes, and all that is left for the kids is something belching for 12 seconds.

Because the plot of Elf is so well-worn (it's the classic fish-out-of-water story) it ends up leaning on its gags to such an extent that it never really seems to go anywhere for the first hour. Once Buddy had touched down in New York City, it's a case of going from one outrageously pratfall to the next, with gags that either don't work or would have worked regardless of the order in which you had seen them. Comedies, when done well, are not just arbitrary collections of jokes - they build to something, or at least go from A to B. But until the horribly schmaltzy third act (more on that later), there is no momentum to Elf at all.

Worse than its narrative flaws, however, is the film's crassly commercial view of Christmas. It might be possible to excuse the absence of Christianity if there had been a genuine emphasis on goodwill and happiness, showing it to be a special time of year. But for most of the characters, Christmas is a time of endurance and misery. James Caan is the obvious Scrooge, but the Gimbel's staff are downtrodden and depressed, wishing to just get it over with. Christmas is presented as just another holiday, just another money-making opportunity, and it is presented as this so nakedly that all the cheeriness that comes out feels dishonest.

Make no mistake, Elf was conceived and designed to make money, nothing else. It may be marketed as a feel-good film, intended to bring festive cheer, but in reality that is less an intention than a pleasant side effect. The cynical intentions behind the film are evident in its ending, where Buddy's story is turned into a bestselling book; what started as pure cheer, in the form of Bob Newhart's narration, is turned into cash at the quickest opportunity. The device of having a protagonist's story turned into a book is nothing new: Roald Dahl did it to great effect in James and the Giant Peach. But where Dahl knew his audience and flattered their intelligence, Elf only values intelligence if it can be turned into a fast buck.

The acid test of any comedy is whether or not it makes you laugh - an acid test which Elf clearly fails. The reason for this, apart from the poor scripting and cynical execution, lies in the awful central performance. Will Ferrell is dreadful, spending all his time either gurning to the audience or shouting "look how funny this is!" to stony silence. He is not a likeable screen presence, bordering on the creepy when surrounded by children. Buddy is supposed to have the innocence of a child, but he's played like someone doing day rates with a sandwich board: he doesn't want to be there, and everything he says has been written by a committee.

The cast around Ferrell don't fare any better. James Caan acquits himself perfectly well, insofar as he is grumpy and haggard enough to pass for a Scrooge-like character. But for most of the film he is on auto-pilot: he could have easily wandered off the set of Mickey Blue Eyes, with all the gags about The Godfather being edited out. Mary Steenburgen, best known for Back to the Future: Part III and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, has far too little to do; her character is well-meaning but just not interesting. And Zooey Deschanel is her usual irritating self, albeit less irksomely kooky than she is in (500) Days of Summer.

The final nail in Elf's coffin is the last 20 minutes, where things shift from objectionably hollow to mawkishly sentimental. The lurch is so big, it's as though the filmmakers had forgotten to make the characters appealing enough to an audience, and with only half an hour to play with, decided to throw everything at the screen which could possibly pull on the heartstrings. Schmaltz can have its place at Christmas - It's A Wonderful Life and all that - but here it is so overbearing that you slowly feel your will to live being eaten away.

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just the concept of Will Ferrell saving Christmas, a concept which is hard to stomach even without him appearing in this film. But the spontaneous singing in Central Park to generate 'Christmas spirit' to power the sleigh is downright toe-curling, as is the montage of people spontaneously singing all over the city. The film takes every potentially cheery image of Christmas and poisons them with its blackened heart.

Elf is a truly dreadful Christmas film which is virtually devoid of laughs. Ferrell's performance is a further mark against the ability of Saturday Night Live to produce good comedy actors, and there is a corrosive cynicism to the whole production which undercuts any genuine sense of free will generated. Jingle All The Way is marginally worse, if only because its celebration of commercialism is so unashamed. But when everything else is stacked against Elf so resoundingly, this little plus point is not much to sing about.

Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

Elf Quotes

Miles Finch: Call me elf one more time. Buddy: He's an angry elf.
– Submitted by Danny O (9 months ago)
Jovie: What were you doing in the women's locker room this morning? Buddy: I heard you singing. Jovie: What about the fact that I was naked in the shower? Buddy: I didn't know you were naked.
– Submitted by Chris G (19 months ago)
Santa: Sorry Buddy but... your dad is on the naughty list. Buddy: NOOOOOOOOOOOO!
– Submitted by Vic P (20 months ago)
Buddy: [standing over another stall] Did you see these toilets they're ginormous!
– Submitted by Vic P (20 months ago)
Buddy: You sit on a throne of lies!
– Submitted by Maryanne R (21 months ago)
Buddy: This place reminds me of Santa's workshop. Except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they wanna hurt me.
– Submitted by Julia L (21 months ago)

Discussion Forum

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