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Will Ferrell stars in "Dances with Racoons."

© 2003, New Line
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Having stowed away in Santa's (a perfectly cast Ed Asner) bag a long time ago, Buddy (Will Ferrell) has spent the last 30 years being raised by elves in the North Pole, happily laboring in Santa's toy workshop. When his human dimensions begin to become a liability in the elf world, Santa suggests that Buddy head to New York City and find his biological father (James Caan). Of course, the sight of a 6'5'' man in a green outfit doesn't blend in too well with the big city, and Buddy finds himself in all sorts of mishaps as he tries to ingratiate himself into his new family and surroundings. As Buddy learns the ways of his new world, he forms a romantic attachment to department store elf, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, showing stellar chops as a singer), and spreads much needed Christmas cheer.

"Elf" (IMDb listing) is a throwback to Christmas movies that just aren't made anymore. Directed by actor Jon Favreau ("Made," "Swingers"), "Elf" is a wonderful concoction of holiday movies past, present, and future. It's a delicious fantasy film, a rip-snorting comedy for both kids and adults, and, most importantly, a strong step forward for star Will Ferrell into leading man status.

Favreau has done his homework with "Elf," utilizing the holiday specials of his youth to serve the picture's magical world. Using stop-motion animation to breathe life into the north pole's fantastical creatures, Favreau brings back the art form that died out with the Rankin-Bass specials of years gone by - even directly paying tribute to the animated classics with Buddy's snowman best friend, who is a dead ringer for the Burl Ives character in the 1964 special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." To feed the eyes, Favreau has filled "Elf" with candy-cane forests, radiant department store Christmas displays, and elf toy workshop wonders (using the same miniature photographic techniques as seen in the "Lord of the Rings" series). On a simple holiday, family film, storybook level, "Elf" is a wonderful reminder of the imagination at play in the service of creating a vivid landscape for this silly story to take place in. Having shown critical low-budget authority in "Made," Favreau stretches his slightly larger budget this time out to beautiful heights of Christmas wonder. In the process, he may even have succeeded in creating something of a new holiday tradition.

Of course, all this eye candy would be lost if the film wasn't so painfully hilarious. It really is Ferrell's big show, as the actor stomps around the frame like a gigantic 9-year-old. Buddy is an intensely hyper character, fueled by a diet of maple syrup and cotton balls. Ferrell appears to be using up every last ounce of his strength trying to maintain Buddy's rapture with the real world; it's truly a ballet of slapstick and Ferrell's patented oddball one-liners. Only this actor could pull off 90 minutes in yellow tights and a green pointy hat, believe me. Favreau makes sure Farrell has plenty to work with, giving Buddy wonderful touches such as his unfailing ability to create anything with an etch-a-sketch (including his "Dear John" letter to his father), his endless discoveries of wonders like escalators and revolving doors throughout New York City, and his tender courtship with Jovie.

Because Ferrell is such a force of nature, it renders James Caan's work as his father a bit sleepy in contrast. At times, it looks like the production should be placing a mirror by Caan's mouth to check for signs of life. Caan seems like he doesn't quite know what type of film he's stepped into. Since the film is playing at a very broad pitch, Caan's silence isn't welcomed.

Maybe to bring good omens to "Elf," Favreau has recruited his "Made" producer Peter Billingsley to cameo as an elf workshop manager. Billingsley was Ralphie in "A Christmas Story." Good luck charms do not come better than that.

Heavens, if I were 9 years old again, I would probably rank this as the best film ever. Being much older than that, I still say that "Elf" is up there with "School of Rock" as the most unlikely family film success story of the year. "Elf" will warm the heart with nostalgia, dazzle the eyes, tickle the funny bone, and make Christmas feel like it can't come fast enough.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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