d. Jon Favreau / USA / 2003 / 97 mins
Viewed on: Film 4 (UK)
I know that, for most people, Will Ferrell is probably a bit of an acquired taste, but alongside Bad Santa (2003), Elf is easily the best Christmas film of recent years, and like all good Christmas films, it remains watchable all year ’round. The reason this film works better than any other Ferrell vehicle before or since is, I think, precisely related to Ferrell’s comic persona and the worlds that are constructed around it.
Ferrell has built a massively successful career playing some of the most comically aloof, dim-witted characters in the history of Hollywood cinema. And when not burdened by sub-par writing or inadequate supporting casts, the chief obstacle for the successful translation of Ferrell’s ‘fish-out-of-water’ characters is the difficulty faced by audiences in having to reconcile the extreme awkwardness of these caricatures with the worlds in which they live.
From this perspective, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) is successful precisely because Ferrell’s title character was an acute representation of the circles in which he moved, at odds with his wider working environment whilst reflecting certain aspects of modern society. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), on the other hand, was a mixed success because the character of Ricky Bobby was placed way too deeply within a heavily caricatured world. In short, it was hard to determine where Ferrell’s character ended and the ‘real world’ began.
Indeed, finding the right balance for Ferrell’s characters can mean the difference between a hilarious success and a unmitigatedly unfunny disaster. Because of the central contrivance of Elf – a human child accidentally collected by Santa Claus from an orphanage and raised as an elf in the North Pole – Ferrell’s typically dim comic persona makes complete sense precisely because he is transplanted directly into the ‘real’ world.
So when Ferrell’s elf, Buddy, walks out into the middle of a New York street and his upended by a taxi, it’s funny not just because it is unexpected, but because it is perfectly in keeping with the naïvety of a character who, in all likelihood, has never before encountered those funny little yellow mechanical monsters.