This year's surprise Thanksgiving hit at the American box office has been Elf, a Christmas-themed family comedy which came out of nowhere to outgross The Cat In The Hat, The Haunted Mansion and The Matrix Revolutions. No wonder, it's a charming, funny film based around a great comic performance by Will Ferrell, America's hottest comedy star. He's not as well known over here but you'll probably recognise him - he's had supporting roles in the Austin Powers movies, Zoolander and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back and he was one of the best things in this year's flawed but amusing Old School. In Elf, he takes centre stage to play Buddy who, as a little boy, crawled into Santa Claus's toy sack and hitched a ride to the North Pole, where the kind-hearted elves adopted him and raised him as one of their own. Now he's a fully grown man and starting to wonder why he's so much bigger than all the other elves and less adept at toy-making. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) finally takes Buddy aside and tells him the truth - that he's a human, that his mother died when he was little and that his father is unaware of his existence. Buddy decides he wants to meet his dad and learn more about humans so he sets off on a long trek to New York.
With the set-up out of the way, the fun really begins when Buddy arrives in the Big Apple, where his father Walter (James Caan) is an executive with a publishing company who puts his work before his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and child. Under pressure from his boss to work over Christmas, the last thing he needs is for a man dressed in an elf costume to show up in his office and claim to be his son. Instead of receiving a warm paternal welcome, Buddy is escorted out of the building. With nowhere to live, he's forced to support himself by working as - what else? - an elf in a department store's toy section. There he meets and is instantly smitten by Jovie (Zooey Descanel), a tough, jaded New York chick. At first annoyed by his attentions, she grudgingly warms to him, as do Walter's family when a DNA test proves Buddy's telling the truth. Walter himself however proves a tougher nut to crack.
Maybe the reason Elf works so well and avoids the sentimental pitfalls that make most Christmas films strictly kids-only affairs is that its creators are the last people on earth you'd expect to find making a kids' flick. Director Jon Favreau is one of the hippest indie film-makers in America, the director of Made and co-writer of Swingers, neither of which you'd want your children watching. In the lead roles he's cast not only hip comedian Will Ferrell but indie actress Zooey Deschanel (All The Real Girls), Bob Newhart, Ed Asner as Santa Claus and the legendary Sonny Corleone himself. They're not the kind of folk who'd lay on the treacle. Even in the last act, when you may find yourself sniffling a little (a touch of seasonal flu, obviously!), you won't feel too manipulated. This is a family movie in the good sense, like Spielberg's ET and the Pixar films. Elf's biggest ace in the hole is Ferrell, who's able to create endless hilarity from the simple premise that Buddy is an irrepressible, childlike optimist who takes everything at face value. This leads to several memorable scenes, Buddy's reaction to the department store "Santa" being one comic highlight and his encounter with the world's most successful children's author being another. We'll be seeing a lot more of Ferrell over the next year, in dramas as well as comedies and on the evidence of Old School and now Elf, he's a talent to watch.