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Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "Elf"

Bob Newhart as the papa who raised human Will Ferrell in "Elf"

The eighth pick for the 12 Films of Christmas is a family favorite from 2003. “Elf,” which stars Will Ferrell as the title character, is a massive holiday hit. When it was released 16 years ago, I imagine the studio hoped it would succeed based on Ferrell’s popularity on “Saturday Night Live.” Having appeared in five prior films, always as a comedic supporting actor, producers were banking on his hilarious TV reputation and his always-reliable acting chops. When other comics are described as “funny men,” you might roll your eyes or give that info a slight headshake. Ferrell leaves no doubt about his go-for-broke acting style. The man seems to have no barriers and no rules of decorum that he won’t break.

“Elf” is the ideal vehicle for Ferrell. It mirrors all the rumors that the Schwarzenegger-DeVito film “Twins” was birthed from the poster possibilities alone. According to film lore, a movie executive free-associated, “Imagine those two guys, standing next to each other, dressed identically, and the tagline says ‘Twins.’” Well, that adlib became a reality, and the same sight gag had a hand in the Ferrell “Elf” casting.

Will Ferrell doesn't quite fit in with the other elves.

The curly-haired actor stands nearly 6 foot 4, and he’s a big guy. If you were to picture any contemporary actor who should play an elf, you’d have to go down the list of short performers: Kevin Hart, the aforementioned DeVito, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, even Tom Cruise! There are tons of actors who appear more elflike: Martin Short, for instance—even his name cries out to cast him in a vertically challenged role.

Director Jon Favreau, however, knew that Ferrell was comedy gold. Having worked alongside wild man Vince Vaughn, who is pretty darn towering, too, Favreau didn’t let Ferrell’s height intimidate him. Instead, he gleefully oversaw this story of a larger-than-average human being who was raised in the North Pole, mistakenly believing he’s an elf. If you had to give the elevator pitch about this flick, it would be: “Think ‘The Jerk’ meets ‘The Santa Clause.’ It will be box-office dynamite.”

Amy Sedaris, James Caan, and Will Ferrell getting to know one another.

Indeed, it was. “Elf” had a budget of $30 million and parlayed that into almost $250 million in profits. Beyond its revenue in the theater, “Elf” spawned a world of collectibles that outperformed anything Santa and his elves could produce. Even this December, when the movie is almost 17 years old, manufacturers are still releasing new memorabilia: PJs, mugs, stockings, hats, cut-outs of Ferrell in his tights and jaunty green outfit. If you can dream it, it will be cranked out in China and shipped to the good old USA.

In addition to Ferrell, who was handling his first leading-man role as Buddy the Elf, the cast sports character actors who know how to squeeze every ho-ho-ho from a punch line. Such well-known funny folks as Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Andy Richter, and Faizon Love round out the ensemble. Voice actress and mimic Amy Sedaris has a very sweet role as Debbie, a publishing company secretary, whom Buddy compliments as having such a pretty face that she belongs on a greeting card. Buddy doesn’t throw out this observation as a pickup line or a way to pass time with a lady. He’s a true man-child, filled with good cheer, pure intentions, and a perennially upbeat disposition.

Will Ferrell at his manic best in "Elf"

The David Berenbaum script is a typical “fish out of water” scenario: Buddy, who has never ventured out of Santa’s workshop, hits the road to dig into his human genealogy. He waves goodbye to his animated friends (stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen voices a baby polar bear), hitches a ride aboard an ice floe, and exchanges some kind words with a narwhal (Favreau talks for this gentlemanly, polite beast). Now, I have a confession to make. Until I saw “Elf,” I had no idea that narwhals existed. I don’t know if I dozed off during “Wild Kingdom” episodes or didn’t pay attention during trips to the aquarium, but that Mr. Narwhal character completely stole my heart. I was predisposed to like that film from that encounter alone.

When Buddy arrives in manic Manhattan, during the Christmas season, it’s a chance for Ferrell to pull out all the stops as a physical comic. He gets caught in a revolving door, eats gum off the street, and disports himself like a babe in the concrete woods. He plays every scene wide-eyed and wildly optimistic. It is a marvelous choice as he bumps up against jaded New Yorkers.

Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel fall in love.

Zooey Deschanel, at her most dour and stoic best, is his future love interest, Jovie; Mary Steenburgen is his stepmom (she’ll go on to play his mom in 2008’s “Step Brothers”); Peter Dinklage is a self-important, egocentric children’s illustrator (Buddy mistakes him for an elf); and, finally, James Caan (yes, Sonny from “The Godfather”) is Buddy’s biological dad, Walter Hobbs. Caan plays him as a man with a hair-trigger anger and a no-nonsense approach to life. He’s the last person who would tolerate a “cotton-headed ninny muggings,” Buddy’s self-critical put-down.

“Elf” is a fun movie for everyone in your household. Kids will identify with Buddy’s joie de vivre and boundless energy. Grandparents will laugh at his riotous antics, similar to the loose-limbed elegance of Peter Sellers and other retro screen comedians. For movie fans, pardon the wrong holiday, but there are a lot of hidden Easter eggs. Peter Billingsley, of “A Christmas Story,” portrays Ming Ming, the head elf in Santa’s workshop. Favreau, who is friends with Billingsley, persuaded the original Ralphie to lend his talents to this flick. Favreau pulls triple voice duty in “Elf,” lending his vice to the narwhal, the arctic puffin, and the baby walrus. He also has a supporting role as the Hobbs family’s pediatrician.

Leon Redbone as the jaunty, jazzy snowman in "Elf"

Leon Redbone, the blues-jazz singer, does a takeoff on the Burl Ives snowman character from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Maurice LaMarche, of “Simpsons” and “Futurama” fame, provides the sound of Buddy’s burp. Daniel Tay, who plays Buddy’s younger human brother, had a banner year in 2003. In addition to playing a sweet kid in a sweeter Christmas movie, he also portrayed the young Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.” Pekar had to have been one of the gloomiest and most curmudgeonly men who ever lived. It’s quite a testament to Tay that he was young impressionable Michael Hobbs in “Elf,” as well as a sourpuss in training

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