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ELF (2003)

Elf  Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan. Director: Jon Favreau  Screenwriter: David Berenbaum
Hollywood really only knows how to make about five different kinds of comedies.  There’s the “oddballs triumphant over the normals” one, probably seen best in National Lampoon’s Animal House, though this goes back to W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers and before.   Then there’s the “everything goes wrong” (the Vacation films, as well as lots of Laurel and Hardy) type, the “mistaken identity” kind (practically every Astaire-Rogers film, bunches of sitcoms), and I’m sure there’s probably another one or two as well.  Tonight’s feature is Elf, which is a pretty good example of the “fish out of water” school, which has been a staple of satire for centuries.  (See: Gulliver’s Travels.)

For some reason, Hollywood really loves this kind.  I think it’s because it’s a way to puncture pompous people, either by putting them into a strange environment (they’re the fish) or by having the actual fish show the pompous people the hollowness of their lives. 

What we’ve got with Elf is the latter scenario.  Will Ferrell (whose last name contains the letters for “Elf”) stars as Buddy, a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s bag and was inadvertently brought to the North Pole.   Raised by the elves there, he remains a very child-like adult—even the rest of the elves seem a bit more down to earth than he.  Tiring of being a stranger in a strange land, he decides to find his biological parents.   And he finds James Caan, who had no idea that Buddy existed (Buddy was the result of a fling in his hippy days, more proof that hippies are evil) but has a wife and a kid already.   And Buddy ends up a stranger in a strange land again, but this time he’s with his own species so he thinks things can work out.

The problem is, he doesn’t try to think or act like a human.   You’d think, being raised by elves but knowing he was human, and deciding to return to humanity, he might believe that humans behave differently from elves.   Nope, he thinks pretty much everyone ought to be like him.   So he’s all excited about all the Christmas stuff going on (he picked a good time to trek), decorations, songs, lots of sugar, as well as potential Santas and mistaken elves (a very funny Peter Dinklage).  

And in the end he rekindles everyone’s holiday spirit, renews the bond between James Caan and his regular son, and even saves Santa Claus and, thus, Christmas.   One almost feels compelled to add, yadda yadda yadda.   While not without charm and containing some very funny moments, it’s another "Saturday Night Live" alumnus movie.   Usually, these take the thinnest premise and yank it out over ninety minutes (not unlike most SNL sketches, in fact).   Will Ferrell is very likeable as the energetic, naïve Buddy, Ed Asner’s Santa is well done for someone who mostly plays curmudgeons, and the rest of the cast does well with their roles.   It's always fun to see Bob Newhart, too.  As for James Caan, he seems completely pissed off throughout the movie (up to the reconciliation, of course).   It makes me wonder if he had to do this movie because he lost a bet.   Overall though, it’s quite enjoyable.  Unlike most SNL-type movies, this one doesn't do much dragging, and you never catch yourself saying, "Will you just end, you stupid movie!"

This is another Santa Claus-related movie that makes me wonder how we’re supposed to regard this particular version of “reality.”   Santa Claus is real, and his elves make toys, and he delivers them—yet the New York City we see is clearly supposed to be the here-and-now that the audience experiences, where the toy companies and the parents take care of the Santa/Elf roles.   So, in this world, what happens on Christmas day?   Does Santa bring presents to good children?   How do the parents react to these strange presents that suddenly appear under the tree, that they didn’t buy and wrap?   Or are all the children bad, in Santa’s view, so he actually does nothing?   There’s a sweet little kid in the film who believes Buddy’s story, I find it hard to believe that she’s “bad,” but perhaps Santa is a hard task-master ("You farted that one time.  No presents for you.").   If all the Santa stuff is true, why does the department store have a (fake) Santa who asks kids what they want?   It just makes me curious how we’re supposed to reconcile the fantasy of Santa and elves with the reality of deadlines and bosses and holiday sales.

Oh well, maybe Santa himself will bring me the answer for Christmas.   I’ve been…well, kind of good.  Maybe.   In a certain light….

I suppose he’d tell me, It’s a kids movie.  You’re thinking too hard about this.

Elf is a fun film to see during the holiday season, its replay value is probably a bit limited after that, but gosh, Christmas comes but once a year—might as well go all out, eh?  Make Buddy proud.

The Nightmare Before Christmas  Starring the voices of: Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, Danny Elfman.  Also starring: puppets. Director:  Henry Selick. Writers: Caroline Thompson, Michael McDowell, Tim Burton, Danny Elfman.
I didn’t see The Nightmare Before Christmas when it played in theatres in 1993, and I really regret that.  I imagine it would have been terrific on the big screen.

But in 1993, my thinking was that stop-motion animation was such a difficult process, that the film would simply be a technical achievement without any real story, or real heart to it.  Stop-motion animation and a compelling story?  That would have been too much to hope for.  I was pretty certain that even Tim Burton couldn’t pull it off.

Well, I was sure damn wrong about that.  Nightmare has a terrific premise, one that I’ve certainly never seen in movies before.   Each of our holidays--Halloween, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and so forth--has its own world, isolated from the others, whose inhabitants work feverishly to create the ideal festive experience for us.  And when that day dawns, they get to strut their stuff and go all out.   Then it’s back to work for next year.

Jack Skellington is the leader of Halloweentown, and after the current year’s triumph, he goes off to brood in the woods.  Jack, you see, is getting bored with screams and scares.   It’s the same old, same old year in and year out, and he’s beginning to wonder if this is all life (so to speak) has to offer him.  

The thing is, Jack’s a very creative individual, and Halloween is really the only holiday in which creativity is central.   St. Patrick’s Day?  You remember to wear green and you can drink green beer.   Christmas?  Sure, you can be creative with your gifts, but the trappings of the holidays are pretty much the same thing, year to year.   Thanksgiving?  You eat food.   Halloween is the time when you have to be creative, because you’re trying to scare people.  And while people pretty much accept presents the same way ("Wow, thanks!"), they don’t scare the same way, and what worked last year may not work this year. 

Jack seems to see the end of the road in terms of what he can do with his holiday, and he’s ready to chuck it all and do something different.   He’s tired of being screamed at and tired of generating fear.   Luckily for him, his wanderings take him to a part of the forest where there are several trees in a ring, each of which has a door symbolic of the holiday found behind that door.   It’s kind of like a set of matter transmitters, I guess.  And the woods, I guess, is sort of like Roger Zelazny’s Amber, a sort of over-world nexus.

Anyway.  Well, Jack picks the Christmas door, experiences what’s on the other side, and suddenly he’s just full of ideas for the holidays, only it’s not his holiday.  He wants to take over Christmas, and bring his own imagination to bear on it.  

What follows is familiar enough to those of you who’ve seen the film, and to those of you who haven’t, hie thee to a video store right away and rent this.  You won’t regret it, and it doesn’t have to be the Holiday Season (any Holiday Season) for the film to be terrific fun.

The animation and design is brilliant from start to finish, the voice casting is inspired, and Danny Elfman’s Kurt Weillesque score and songs are great.   When I first saw it I thought there were too many songs and I didn’t respond to most of them, but now I like all of them with the exception of “Kidnap the Santa Claus” which seems overly repetitive. 
T The songs take up a major portion of the narrative--Danny Elfman gets far more Jack-time than Chris Sarandon does, though Sarandon’s reading in the “text” parts is inspired.

Interestingly enough, on the commentary track I heard on the laserdisc version some years back, director Henry Selick and cinematographer Pete Kozachik discuss how they wanted to drop “Sally’s Song” because it brought the proceedings to a dead halt.   I was amazed when I heard this, because that’s exactly what the song seems designed to do.   We’re all caught up in Jack’s scheme, but Jack can’t succeed in his plans—he HAS to fail to restore balance to the world.   And we’d better start getting ready for that failure.   “Sally’s Song” slows us down enough to set that up, gives us pause in our enthusiasm, and helps us to realize how this night has to end.  Dropping the song would make the film, in her words, “a disaster!”

Of course, Selick was looking at the film in a purely technical aspect, and in filmic terms, he’s right—the song stops the film dead.   In story terms, however, it’s exactly what’s needed.   I think this explains a great deal why his next stop-motion project, James and the Giant Peach, fell so flat for me.   For here was the film I’d dreaded Nightmare being—all wonderful technical achievement, no characters, story or heart to the proceedings. 

If this film has a flaw (and I’m not saying it does), it would be that the underlying message seems to be the one that Disney was pushing relentlessly in its children’s films during the 80’s and 90’s:  Follow your dreams, but come to your senses and do what you’re best at.    The message seems a little down-to-earth for this film, which soars into areas of imagination never hinted at before, and rarely hinted at after.   In terms of sheer invention and imagination, this film has only been matched once (to my mind), which isn’t that surprising.   When imagination was handed out in Hollywood, I think Tim Burton got most of it.

Highly recommended, any time of the year.