Will Ferrell has a comic persona that's practically script-proof. Just give him a role that calls for him to act as innocent and enthusiastic as can be, and watch the laughs pile up as his borderline-infantile demeanor runs in defiance of the harsher realities around him.
That dopey likeability rescues Elf from the pit of half-formed flicks peopled by "Saturday Night Live" grads. What would you rather see: Ferrell duded up as Santa's tallest helper and navigating a world that doesn't match his gumdrop-sweet disposition, or "Mango Gets a Leg Wax?"
What we have here is the heartwarming story of Buddy, a baby who crawled into Santa's (Ed Asner) bag one Christmas and bought himself an elfin childhood at the North Pole. (An obvious soundstage populated by pointy-shoed little people and stop-motion animal pals, it's an environment straight out of Rankin/Bass.) With the onset of puberty, the normal-sized Buddy finds himself increasingly at odds with his dinky surroundings. Told at last of his human origins, he returns to the land "down south" -- New York -- to be reunited with his long-lost daddy (James Caan, the second example of how a mediocre movie can elevate itself through smart casting).
From here on in, screenwriter David Berenbaum's one joke is to pit Buddy's good-natured naïveté against the cynical brutality of his new home -- or at least, whatever stands for cynical brutality in a PG-rated movie. Shrugging off or just not noticing the hostility of his neighbors, Buddy responds with nuclear-intense excitement to life's littlest miracles, like revolving doors and diners that serve the "world's best cup of coffee." Well, it's something to be proud of, isn't it?
Mending fences with his aloof pop is job one for Buddy, though there's still time to make kissy-face with a department-store Santa's helper (Zooey Deschanel, who should be in everything). The rest of the film is a mixed goodie bag: A violent misunderstanding between Ferrell and genuine dwarf Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent") is better in setup than execution, and a final stab at Christmas-picture "relevance" raises the tide of sap higher than you'd expect from a movie directed by Jon Favreau ("Made").
But Ferrell, God love him, just keeps up that industrial-strength happy face, enthusing like a lunatic until the idiotic Buddy becomes the de facto top dog of every scene. When all else is said and done, you can't not like someone who's so damn determined to like you.