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.