"Elf" is the kind of feel-good Christmas movie that makes you feel, well, pretty good. Jon Favreau's new film could be called "Miracle on 33rd Street," because much of it is set in Gimbel's annual North Pole center. (I recommend rereading David Sedaris's immortal "Santaland Diaries" for a more nuanced view.) It's the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), an elf in (the real) Santa's North Pole workshop, who as a baby in an orphanage, on Christmas Eve crawled into Santa's big sack and ended up being raised at the North Pole by his adoptive father, Papa Elf Bob Newhart. Buddy, being three feet taller than anyone around him, learns that he's actually human, and Papa encourages him to go to New York and find his birth father.
He arrives in full elf drag, tights, little jacket, cone hat and all, and works his way through town to find his father Walter (James Caan) in his office in the Empire State Building as editor of a children's publishing company. Walter is mortified, of course, but brings him home to his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and young son, Buddy's stepbrother (Daniel Tay). He even gets him a job in the mailroom because he's so good with his hands.
Buddy wanders over to Gimbel's, unmasks the store Santa ("You sit on an evil throne!" he shouts as he pulls off the beard), and meets lovely Zooey Deschanel, one of Santa's helpers there. In a charming scene they sing a beautiful duet, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," in the women's locker room.
The film isn't all sweetness and light, thank God, and there's a nice subplot in which Walter's bosses threaten him unless he comes up with a great new book idea, leading him to call in legendary children's author Peter Dinklage, of "The Station Agent," whom Buddy tragically mistakes for an elf.
No doubt you can guess the end, which involves finding enough Christmas spirit in blasť New Yorkers to power Santa's sleigh, but then Christmas movies are intended to charm, not to contain surprises. Still, charm is not what makes for a classic. Like others in the Christmas genre, "Elf" humanizes what is basically a farce. That is, it tries to portray real people acting as they would in real life, while doing farcical things that are counter to logic. This is dangerous territory, because the two are by definition in conflict. It's a conflict that director David Zucker, for example, handles particularly well. He shoots the farce, treats it as real, and lets the humanity go; and his films are funnier and more durable than this will be. We see the same approach in the classic Monty Python films, particularly "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," in which the most bizarre and illogical events are treated with respect by both the actors and the director, Terry Jones, with the result that if we're not careful we'll actually believe that Graham Chapman is in fact King Arthur. England could have done a lot worse than Chapman, and perhaps did.
I must confess that I'm not a Will Ferrell fan. His pratfalls and his open face notwithstanding, I keep sensing a self-consciousness about his work that undermines the comedy. Nevertheless, "Elf" has a lot to recommend it - just not as much as we want.