starring Will Ferrell, James Caan and Bob Newhart
3 stars

Elf is based on a pretty simple premise: Will Ferrell looks kinda funny in an elf suit. Oh, there's more to it than that, I suppose; nominally the idea is that orphan baby Buddy crawls into Santa's bag one Christmas, he's raised by the elves, and then 30 years later he notices he's not 4 feet tall, deduces that he's not an elf and decides to go to New York to meet his dad played by James Caan. 

But really it's the suit, the elf suit Ferrell wears for most of the movie. It's a pretty good outfit, with a pointy green hat, a bright green jacket, yellow tights and cute green boots with curled tips. Ferrell's a pretty tall guy, so him plus the suit, they stick out and look goofy, and it's always worth at least a smile just looking at him.

It's a mild amusement, but that's what Elf is, a mild, inoffensive Christmas comedy that makes reasonable use of Ferrell's gawky brand of comedy acting. There's something open and innocent about a lot of Ferrell's characters, like a kid trapped in a man's body; we saw a bit of it in his flailing performance in Old School, and we saw even more as he passionately defended the cowbell in a classic SNL sketch. Here as Buddy he's the perfect naïve, a grown man who thinks like a child and still believes in Santa. He says kid things, cursing himself as a "cottonheaded ninnymuggins" or proclaiming "I like to smile! Smiling's my favorite!", all with that Will Ferrell guileless happy look on his face. 

As a Christmas movie, the gags are clean and family-fun, with simple scenes like when Buddy flipping out on a fake Santa or dumping maple syrup and Smarties into his spaghetti. Bob Newhart gets some early dry laughs as Buddy's elfish adopted father and The Station Agent's Peter Dinklage plays a pretty funny take-no-shit hotshot kid's-book writer who takes exception to Buddy calling him an elf (he's a dwarf). 

Beyond that, Ferrell and his suit, however, the rest of the movie's a bit flabby. Buddy doesn't change or develop as a character; he doesn't grow up or learn anything about the real world, so ultimately it's not really about him. The point of the story instead kinda slides over to James Caan's rather indifferent struggle to be a better dad. Nice enough, but they accidentally solve that problem half an hour before the end of the movie, which is why the "climax" of the movie ends up as a rather muddled treatise on Christmas spirit in the form of a collective call for some Christmas carols in order to give Santa's Christmas-spirit-powered sleigh the boost it needs to evade some sinister horsebacked Central Park rangers. Kinda dumb and beside the point, in other words.

But nobody's really expecting Miracle on 34th St. here anyway. It's a shame Elf didn't have a stronger story cuz Ferrell could've pulled it off, but as a silly holiday movie you could take a kid to see if she's already seen School of Rock twice, Elf is okay.