Watching Will Ferrell in the new comedy Elf (New Line) is a bit like waiting for a bomb to go off. The last time he appeared onscreen, in Old School, he spent most of his time going berserk. He became Frank the Tank, a member of a "civilian fraternity" who downed funnels of beer, led a solo streaking run, and shot himself in the neck with a tranquilizer dart. All in all, it was the Will Ferrell explosion that his fans had been waiting for. Ferrell's comic genius is that he doesn't look like a maniac but knows how to act like one. He's also capable of unshakeable deadpan. Ferrell's most beloved sketch on Saturday Night Live (where he was a cast member from 1995 until last year) is a parody of VH1's Behind the Music, in which he plays the cowbell as a member of the '70s intellectual rock band Blue Öyster Cult. He really, really wants to tap the cowbell well, and his fierce intensity cracks you up. His fellow cast-mate Jimmy Fallon covers his face with drumsticks to hide his laughter.
At first glance, Elf could easily be confused with an SNL skit, with its simple set design and with Ferrell dressed in yellow tights, black pointed shoes, and a green frock coat. He plays Buddy, an orphan who crawled into Santa's sack as a baby and was raised by the elves. Buddy believes himself to be a genuine wee man, despite the evidence that he's the Yao Ming of the North Pole and the only baritone in the elf choir. His surrogate elf father (Bob Newhart) tells Buddy the truth: He does not suffer from a glandular condition, and his real father, a human, works in the Empire State Building. Buddy treks through Canada and the Lincoln Tunnel to find him. During these early scenes, Ferrell wears a creepy, cheerful grimace. Tick. Tick. Tick. Only a matter of time before he wreaks elf havoc, right?
Actually, no. Ferrell's elfness manifests itself not as arch comedy but as extreme enthusiasm. He smiles and tickles and sings. He's a good argument for elf Ritalin. The only time he really cuts loose is during a New York montage that looks improvised: Buddy waves back at people who are hailing cabs and gleefully takes advertising fliers from the stoic guys who hand them out. For the most part, Ferrell's trademark outbursts have been replaced by sugary sweet moments: Buddy tries to fix Santa's sleigh after it has crashed in Central Park; he admires his father (James Caan) even though Dad refuses to snuggle with him. The intensity that Ferrell usually invests in his comedy has been redirected toward holiday movie clichés, but, in a strange way, it works: He believes in the clichés, and you believe in him.
Elf is rigidly, almost endearingly straight. The director, Jon Favreau, wrote and acted in Swingers (1996), and he seems a likely candidate for a hip, subversive fable, or else some of the cherubic anarchy that Richard Linklater served up in The School of Rock. But Favreau hasn't spiked the hot chocolate; he's made a heartwarming homage to Christmas movies past. The North Pole has a retro look, Buddy ends up at Gimbel's, one of the department stores immortalized in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and there's an animated snowman like the one in the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV specials. The music is chirpy and borderline annoying. But once you rearrange your expectations and give yourself over to the movie's unfailing earnestness, you realize that Favreau and Ferrell do heartwarming fairly well. It's not spoiling anything to say that Buddy falls in love with a girl (Zooey Deschanel), reconciles with his dad, and finds a way to save Christmas. The movie plucks all the old-fashioned notes, with modest, good-spirited vigor. It's irony-free fun for the whole family.