On paper, this Yuletide fantasy looks insufferably twee - the story of a human baby raised as an elf in Santa's grotto. In the hands of director Jon Favreau and star Will Ferrell, though, Elf escapes most of the obvious pitfalls.
"TONGUE IN CHEEK"
It's a bracingly subversive story told with tongue firmly in cheek. After crawling into Santa's bag of toys one Christmas Eve, young orphan Buddy is carried back to the big guy's workshop in the North Pole. There he's assigned a surrogate father (Bob Newhart) and reared as an elf, despite becoming a gangly adult (played by Ferrell) - three times bigger than everyone else.
In his heart, though, Buddy knows he'll never fit into the elf world. So when he learns that his real dad is alive and well and living in New York, he sets off southwards to get reacquainted.
What follows is standard fish-out-of-water fare, with Ferrell (clad in bright green elf outfit and pointy shoes) dismissed as a nutball by workaholic pop Walter (James Caan) and everyone else he meets. Not to be deterred, Buddy sets out to win over Walter, woo pretty shopgirl Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and bring a touch of Christmas cheer back to moody Manhattan.
"MANIC COMIC INTENSITY"
It could have been dreadful, but actor-turned-helmer Favreau and screenwriter David Berenbaum keep the schmalz to a minimum, while giving Ferrell plenty of room to showcase his trademark brand of manic comic intensity.
Casting Caan is another clever move. Where a lesser actor would welcome the chance to get touchy-feely on screen, the former Godfather star looks genuinely reluctant to display any paternal affection or seasonal spirit.
Only in the closing stages, where Santa (Edward Asner) needs the goodwill of New York to get his sled flying, does Elf slip into treacly sentiment. It's a small mistake, though, for a comedy which otherwise makes you believe in Christmas movies again.