Christmas-themed movies still occupy a special place in cinema, if only as the kind of thing that might not be a blockbuster out of the gate, but can reliably draw an audience year after year for a very long time. Hollywood isn’t always known for playing the long game, but it sure doesn’t mind giving it a shot when it comes to Christmas movies, which might explain why there are so many half-hearted, marginally entertaining holiday flicks out there. But some exceptions take their Yuletide inspiration with a bit more Christmas spirit, and that’s where we find a unlikely holiday favorite: Elf.

The story is about buddy the Elf, a human who, as an orphaned baby who crawled into Santa’s sack one night and wasn’t discovered until Santa returned to the North Pole. One of Santa’s elves adopts Buddy and raises him as his own, which works well enough until Buddy hits adulthood. He might just be the cheeriest Elf of all, but he’s freakishly big, doesn’t have the finger speed to manufacture toys, and is increasingly aware that he’s somehow not quite like the rest of his North Pole brethren. Finally, Santa and Papa Elf let him know that his true parents gave him up for adoption, his real father is in New York City, and worst of all…is on the Naughty List. Driven by a need to meet his real father as well as redeem him, Buddy hoofs it to Manhattan and enters his dad’s life—as well as that of his stepmother and half-brother. Bewildered by the cynicism of the big city, Buddy falls for a young lady named Jovie, teaches everyone around him something about Christmas spirit, and even manages to help rescue Santa himself, who crashes his flying sleigh in Central Park.

This is one of those movies that isn’t anything great when it comes to concept or story; it all works well enough as another one of those assembly-line holiday films meant to remind everybody that Christmas is about being decent to each other more than it is about giving or receiving presents. But there are a few secret ingredients that elevates Elf into something wonderful. Will Ferrell is the perfect choice to play Buddy, a character defined by sweetness, glee and innocence in a world in very short supply of all three. While he serves up a lot of fairly predictable laughs as a fish out of water, where he works best is when his infectious cheer slowly starts to thaw the icy hearts of his fellow New Yorkers, whether they are his co-workers, passersby on the street, or his new family.

Meanwhile, James Caan works delightfully as Buddy’s Scrooge-like father, an executive at a children’s publishing company who is so cynically phoning in his job that he’s the kind of guy who signs off on final galleys with blank pages in them because what the heck, the readers are kids, right? It comes as no surprise that this guy wants nothing to do with his long-lost son, his current family, or Christmas in general, and his arc ends in the only place where a movie like this will let it: with a climactic decision of whether the demands of his high-pressure career are really worth what it’s doing to him as a person. Most of us shouldn’t need the introduction of a human-by-nature, elf-by-nurture change agent in our lives to make that call, but this character makes it work.

And finally, Zooey Deschanel ace it as Jovie, the softly crooning love interest for Buddy, a lovely young woman already ground down to a nub by a huge, impersonal, and uncaring city. Her initial encounters with Buddy are bewildering and off-putting, but no creep can keep up an act as earnest, sustained and consistent as Buddy’s, and she begins to think that maybe this guy is the real deal. Maybe for him, every day really is Christmas. And if a guy like that is willing to take a chance on you, then maybe it’s worth taking a chance on him. But more than that, maybe it’s worth taking a chance on everybody.

The highlight of the movie comes in the various kinds of chaos and change Buddy brings along. It’s hilarious to watch him throw snowballs at a machinegun pace to decimate an entire crew of bullies in the park, singlehandedly. Or turn a mail room full of ex-convicts and burnouts into a gang of smiling, cheering carousers entertained by Buddy’s impossibly energetic dancing. Or seeing Buddy and Peter Dinklage square off in the kind of inversion of a role that Dinklage has himself famously avoided playing. Or seeing Buddy walk through his first day in the City, ignoring Santa’s advice to eat gum stuck to the railing, hitting every button in the ESB elevator, running through circular doors till he gets dizzy, and believing every diner’s boast that they really do have the best coffee in the city.

But the moment of truth is when Buddy and his father outrun the Central Park Rangers, a team of law enforcement officers so hardcore they are permanently on the naughty list, and who looks like Ringwraiths as they charge their dark stallions around the park in search of Santa’s downed sled. While all that happens, Jovie and Buddy’s brother Michael buy time by reading off entries from the official Santa wish list on live TV. As enough people hear their truest desires read aloud, it creates the belief needed to get Santa’s sled airborne once more. The wishes range from the comically self-serving to the purest distillation of what it means to want something so bad you wish somebody magical could come once a year and give you what you desire. But in this, we see that maybe there are more Buddies out there than we give ourselves credit for. And maybe we can all do a little more to make every day feel like Christmas, too.

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