Will Ferrell makes me weak in the knees. There, I said it. I know his tried-and-true schtick gets under some people’s skin, but I just can’t get enough. Whether he’s flailing across a racetrack covered in imaginary flames, rubbing his junx on his step-brother’s drums, or locking himself in battle with a rival news crew, the SNL alum makes me laugh every time he looks at the screen or injects a character with raging egomaniacism. I’ll be the first to admit he’s starred in a few disappointing duds (‘Bewitched’ and ‘Semi Pro’ anyone?), but for an actor who’s been criticized for playing the same character in every film, Ferrell continues to surprise me again and again.
When an orphaned baby boy crawls into a strange bag on Christmas Eve, he inadvertently earns a free trip to the arctic with an unsuspecting Saint Nick (Ed Asner). Once discovered at the North Pole, the human infant is adopted by a kindly elder elf named Papa (Bob Newhart) and raised to believe he too is an elf. Buddy (Will Ferrell), as the new larger-than average man-child comes to be called, grows up to work in Santa’s shop, but is soon told why he’s so different than his co-workers. While revealing his origin, Papa explains to Buddy that his real father, a wealthy publishing executive named Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is alive and well in New York City. Determined to reconnect with his own blood, Buddy heads to the Big Apple to investigate his roots. While in the city, Buddy must convince Walter of the truth, adjust to a new job in a department store, and win the affections of a fellow employee (Zooey Deschanel).
It would be easy to dismiss ‘Elf’ as a fairly formulaic family flick (which wouldn't be far from the truth), but to do so would be to overlook a holiday gem that manages to surpass the sappy conventions of its subgenre with quick wit, inventive physical comedy, and a slew of loveable characters. Ferrell’s Buddy is so naïve, that his interactions with new friends and situations is a constant source of comedic gold. Buddy’s encounters with a department store Santa, a diminutive author, and a warm-hearted arctic guide are effortless in their execution and thoroughly memorable in their delivery. I would even go so far as to say director Jon Favreau (‘Iron Man,’ ‘Zathura’) has made a near-perfect family film in that it will appeal to both children and adults. I couldn’t stop my son from bouncing up and down throughout the movie even though he’s probably too young to quite understand what was happening in the story. His excitement was infectious. I found myself laughing at the more involved humor in the film and even enjoying the more clichéd sight gags that sent him into fits of laughter.
The only time ‘Elf’ doesn’t feel like a breezy Christmas classic is when it has to wrap up every loose end in the third act and allow Buddy to emerge as a holiday hero to a variety of people. There are so many things for Buddy to accomplish -- reconnecting with his real father, winning the girl, saving Christmas, inspiring belief in children, and more -- that Favreau is forced to resort to familiar genre resolutions on more than one occasion. Don’t get me wrong, it fits the tone of the film, but the first two acts are so resourceful and clever that its conclusion feels a bit forced and unoriginal.
Even so, ‘Elf’ is the sort of holiday flick I’ll pull out again and again, so I can plop down on the couch with my son, and munch popcorn with him until the credits roll. Not only is the film one of Ferrell’s more reliable comedies, it manages to exude heart without feeling insincere or artificial in its unabashed love of the Christmas season. If your family is craving high-def holiday entertainment, you can’t go wrong with ‘Elf.’
Bright, colorful, and oozing holiday spirit, ‘Elf’ features a 1080p/VC-1 transfer that renders the vibrant hues of the North Pole workshop and the vivid lights of the New York cityscape with ease. Not only is the palette strong and steady, contrast is spot on, and black levels are deep (albeit uneven at times). In fact, compared to the standard DVD, the film looks more stable, three dimensional, and sharp. Aside from a few questionably soft shots, fine detail is fairly crisp, textures are decent, and on-screen hair and stitching are pretty well defined. For the most part, the Blu-ray transfer also isn’t haunted by the significant artifacting, banding, and edge enhancement that frequently appeared on the DVD.
I’d like to say Warner’s transfer offers the best rendition of the film imaginable, but lingering problems hold this release back from perfection. Shadow delineation is inconsistent, a few night scenes are hindered by noise, and skintones occasionally appear flushed with reds and oranges. It also doesn’t help that brief bursts of artifacts and thin slivers of edge enhancement still pop up from time to time (although, to be fair, their appearances will only be noticed by the most discerning viewers). Worst of all, DNR is a definite and noticeable issue throughout. Ultimately, ‘Elf’ looks pretty good in its high definition debut, but some extra polish, a more natural picture, and another pass altogether would produce a more refined BD transfer.
Sidestepping the standard Dolby Digital pitfall that’s ensnared so many Warner releases of late, ‘Elf’ arrives on Blu-ray with a faithful, fairly impressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that offers a slight upgrade from its DVD counterpart. While a few lines still get lost in the holiday hustle and bustle, dialogue is generally clean and well prioritized, LFE support is strong considering the tone of the film, and rear channel aggression is consistent enough to keep scenes in the department store sounding busy and alive. Immersion is hindered a bit by the film’s limited sound design, but once you get past the inherent nature of the comedy’s straight-forward sonics you should be more than pleased with the track’s smooth pans and convincing directionality.
Alas, family films and comedies rarely offer standout sound design and ‘Elf’ falls into both camps. Warner’s TrueHD mix is true to its source, but underwhelming when compared to other high-def releases on the market. As it stands, fans won’t find much to complain about, but audiophiles will wish the track had as much seasonal punch as the film’s best gags.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Elf’ features all of the significant content that appeared on New Line’s 2004 Infinifilm Edition DVD. While I was disappointed to find that the features are merely presented in standard definition, the supplemental package is quite extensive and loaded with content for adults and kids alike.
’Elf’ may not be everyone’s idea of a Christmas classic, but in the opinion of this family man, it delivers a series of solid laughs, has a healthy dose of holiday spirit, and is sure to slap smiles on both kids and adults. The Blu-ray edition is worth your attention as well. It offers a much improved video transfer, a faithful TrueHD audio track, and special features for everyone in your household. While newcomers should probably test the waters before diving in, I can’t help but recommend ‘Elf’ this Christmas season.