Review: Elf

Elf (2003)

You’re going to need to bear with me here because I will get around to recommending that you watch Elf. But I first need to point out that it’s just not a very good movie.


The story is contrived and soulless, the casting—with one very obvious exception—is tone deaf, it’s badly shot, and the practical effects are so unconvincing that they would have been better off going with early-‘00s CGI instead.


Every character except Will Ferrell’s is one-dimensional and pretty much interchangeable. Any irascible middle-aged actor could have played the James Caan role, Mary Steenburgen is just there to be stereotypically empathetic, the kid that plays their son is just unpleasant, and a very anemic and kind of homely (before she went full Kabuki and became an “It” girl) 

Zooey Deschanel is just there to admire Ferrell—Nicoletta Braschi’s thankless job vis-à-vis Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, although not quite that bad.


Everything about this film feels half-baked, like a Tim Burton movie. The ending is a completely botched deus ex machina, with every kind of contrivance thrown at the audience, all but forgetting about Buddy, ladling on a ton of fake drama because the filmmakers hadn’t been able to generate any real drama before then—the kind of thing that happens when the so-called creatives only have other movies to draw on for tactical support because they don’t have any bearings in real life.


It might seem misguided to beat up on a 17-year-old film, but I’m trying to make a point about why we watch Elf, and should watch Elf.


Elf isn’t so much a fully fledged movie as it is a 90-minute one-man show—but Will Ferrell’s performance is so brilliant that it’s worth making some time for over the holidays.



Aside from some creepy crawlers whenever there’s a blown-out white patch, the movie looks surprisingly good in HD on Kaleidescape.



An unexceptional mix—but at least it never gets in the way of Ferrell’s schtick.

This movie has become a tradition because it’s great holiday wallpaper, meant to be played in the background during Yuletide celebrations, but liberally sprinkled with “O wait!” moments that momentarily draw your attention back to the screen—like “O wait! This is the scene where he eats the Pop Tarts with the spaghetti,” and “O wait! Here’s that thing where he gets attacked by the midget.” In other words, A Christmas Story, except made with some intelligence and a modicum of taste.


In retrospect, it’s obvious that Elf anticipated and helped create the current age of maximum repetition and redundancy where the last thing we want from a movie or a series is to be shown anything challenging or new. It’s meant to be big, warm, and fuzzy like a well-worn security blanket, something utterly predictable and familiar you can wrap yourself in so you don’t have to feel anything, except coddled.


What would seem to be the movie’s greatest vice is actually its saving virtue. Elf is ultimately nothing but a Will Ferrell vehicle—he doesn’t just carry the film, he is the film. And that’s not a bad thing but a great thing—a cause for celebration—because 

he’s able to pull it off, and in spades, turning an otherwise by-the-book studio hack job into a virtuoso one-man show.


Ferrell has Peter Sellers’ ability to make cartoonish, completely impossible, characters feel more real than than the more realistic characters around him. And his investment in Buddy is so complete that he’s able to rise above the incredibly tepid and inept script (which apparently everybody but the gaffers worked on) and energize enough scenes to make it worth tolerating all the many areas where the movie sags.


I know that’s a really back-handed recommendation, but it’s a very sincere one. It’s definitely worth anyone’s time to watch Elf and just hone in on and savor and sit in amazement of what Ferrell is able to bring forth. He makes Buddy so completely embody Christmas that Santa, the elves, the North Pole, and all the other traditional trappings seem not just threadbare but unnecessary.


Elf looks surprisingly good viewed in HD on Kaleidescape. I can’t see any point in rushing this movie into a 4K HDR upgrade—it would likely just make it look even more poorly executed than it already does. The only real flaw in HD is the crawling corpuscles that appear whenever there’s a bright white patch, like the 

Elf (2003)

blownout sunlight seen through the doors at Gimbels or the lighting under the kitchen cabinets in Caan’s apartment.


The soundtrack is nothing special, just serviceable, but you can hear all the lines so I’ve got to give it credit for that. The extras? (of which there are many). Let’s not go there.


Nothing I’ve said here is going to make even the slightest dent in Elf’s reputation as a latter-day Christmas classic. But hopefully I can jog the perception of it just enough that it seems less like an obligation, like fruitcake, sweaters, and socks, and more like a genuine source of holiday cheer.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

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