Be Good 

Elf is better than it should be.

This appears to be a promising year for the grown-men-in-silly-costumes school of holiday comedies, with Will Ferrell's Elf beating Billy Bob Thornton's upcoming Bad Santa (directed by Ghost World's Terry Zwigoff!) to theaters.

Ferrell's expanded-sketch-comedy fairy tale is determinedly kid-friendly in a manner that Thornton's Santaland diary is unlikely to be -- something signaled early on by the kids'-picture-book opening credits and North Pole art-direction that pays homage to classic Rankin-Bass holiday television specials. But these touches also seem as intent on provoking nostalgic recognition from the film's adult audience as on pleasing the tots in the crowd.

Ferrell is Buddy, the only human among the elves in Santa's workshop. It seems that, as an infant, Buddy crawled into Santa's toy sack during an orphanage visit and wasn't discovered until he'd been accidentally transported back to the North Pole. With no parents to return the child to, Buddy was raised as an elf by the workshop's head toymaker (Bob Newhart, who narrates). Thirty years later, Buddy is finally told the truth, and he sets out to find his human father, a children's-book publisher (James Caan) who resides on Santa's naughty list.

Elf gets plenty of mileage out of its Santa's workshop sight gags, as human Buddy towers over his elfmates. The most memorable moment early on is when Buddy, who is deemed too slow for toymaking, is transferred to the testing department. There he has to turn the crank on one Pop Goes the Weasel toy after another, a novel vision of hell on earth that Sartre might have written about.

But the core of this comedy that's better than you might think -- and the bulk of its laughs -- comes from the rather predictable fish-out-of-water scenario that emerges when Buddy, clad in yellow tights and full of elfish cheer, descends on present-day Manhattan in search of his father -- the unstated central joke being that nobody in Manhattan thinks twice about a grown man in an elf outfit walking the city's streets.

A lot of Elf's scenarios are obvious. But instead of a letdown, the familiarity becomes a comic boon because it provides multiple laughs. You giggle in anticipation of what's about to happen (Buddy, mistaken for a Gimbels' Santaland employee, learns that St. Nick is about to arrive: "Santa! Oh my God! Santa! I know him"), guffaw when it actually does happen (Buddy, towering over a crowd of expectant children, lays eyes on the department-store Santa: "He's a fake! He's a fake!"), and roll when Ferrell pushes the scenario past expectations ("You sit on a throne of lies!").

Ferrell effortlessly projects guileless, good-guy charm and gonzo commitment to whatever material he's handed. It has served him well in a string of Saturday Night Live sketches and as family man turned frat-rat "Frank the Tank" in this year's Old School, and he gives a performance here that never once winks at the audience. This pays big dividends, especially in a scene where Buddy's father hires an ace children's-book writer who happens to be a dwarf and Buddy innocently mistakes him for an elf ("Does Santa know that you left the workshop?"), Ferrell's wide-eyed sincerity serving to both squeeze every ounce of humor out of the scene and diffuse a scenario that might have come across as unduly tasteless and hurtful.

And the rest of the cast follows Ferrell's lead. Elf is rather anonymously directed by Jon Favreau, but the film's fine casting in support of Ferrell gives it more character than it might otherwise have had. It starts with Newhart and Ed Asner (as Santa) lending a bit of comic gravitas and continues to the use of such fine comedic supporting players as Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, and Amy Sedaris.

But best of all is Zooey Deschanel, a minor young actress who keeps showing she can be so much more. Deschanel provided memorably deadpan comic relief opposite Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl and was extremely affecting earlier this year in David Gordon Green's George Washington followup All the Real Girls, one of the best American romances in recent memory (which, disappointingly, never played Memphis). In Elf, Deschanel is a total charmer, and one of the great incidental pleasures in the movies this year is the revelation here that she can really sing. Watching her -- and listening to her -- in Elf, one wonders what a director like Frank Capra or Howard Hawks might have done with Deschanel in another era.

With Ferrell leading the way, the first half of Elf rivals Jack Black's School of Rock as the year's funniest film. But it bogs down somewhere past the half-way point, where it becomes the second film in a row for Ferrell where winning broad comedy takes a back seat to a socially redeeming message. That ploy was a bit of a drag in Old School, but it's more forgivable here. Elf builds up so much comic goodwill early on that when the laughs slow down and it makes a bald bid for heartwarming, you'll be willing to consent to the manipulation. Besides, how maudlin can a holiday movie be that ends with Santa fleeing those jack-booted thugs and naughty-list regulars, the Central Park rangers? -- Chris Herrington

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