The plot of Elf seems to have thrown together by someone who was clearly thinking of Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The early part of the film heads off on a reprise of Miracle on 34th Street with its plot of a North Pole denizen come to New York City and mistakenly getting a job at a department store where his patent insistence in the reality of Santa and Christmas ends up having him believed mad but also inspires the department store to think of Christmas spirit over profit although this plotline is soon abandoned. There is also a good few dashes of the delightful bodyswap film Big (1988) both films feature outward-seeming adults who are or at least have the mental age of a child; both also feature said character becoming involved with a curmudgeonly father figure who manufactures product for children (toys in Big, childrens books here) and showing him how to be child-like again.
For all Jon Favreaus indie movie credentials, one feels that Elf should have been more than it is. Certainly, Favreau indulges an eccentricity at times including encounters with stop-motion animated creatures crafted by the Chiodo Brothers snowmen, whales and journeys through a candy cane forest that look as though they have strayed in from a Tim Burton film. This is a film that needs a certain manic giddiness to its silliness to work but Jon Favreau directs in far too mannered a way and crucially never particularly winds any situation up.
About the only thing going for the film is Saturday Night Live (1975 ) alumnus Will Ferrell, who subsequently became an A-list name after his breakout performance here. The basic concept of the film is 63 Ferrell as a mismatched elf out of water. It is the sort of role you could imagine Robin Williams having a field day with but the way that Will Ferrell plays the part is as a simple-minded kid of around pre-school age. It is a one-note performance Ferrell spends the entire time skipping around in a big green suit and hat, getting giddy and excited and wanting to give everybody hugs. That is about the sum total of Elf as a concept. You might compare Elf to Big, which did the concept of a young child in a mans body with a genuine poignance alas, Jon Favreau seems a little standoffish when it comes to sentiment and the film never does anything except play off the laughs of a grown man acting like a kid.
Jon Favreaus casting coup proves to be James Caan. For anyone who comes to Elf with memory of James Caans history in tough guy, mens men roles, the idea of seeing him cast as a misanthropic curmudgeon whose character arc is slowly to have his heart warmed up throughout, this is a near-perfect piece of casting. Only, Jon Favreau fumbles it. Apart from a couple of his initial scenes, Caan never gets to play a Scrooge-like curmudgeon at most his character seems a run-of-the-mill workaholic. All the meanness of someone sending out childrens books with the last pages missing is swept under the carpet and instead the central drama of the film focuses around him trying to find a new publishing hit (although these scenes do feature a very funny scene-stealing performance from Peter Dinklage). We never have any scenes where James Caan gets to tear his hair out because of Will Ferrells antics. Caan gets a redemption later on when he walks out on a business conference because his younger son needs him, but this is a redemption that seems poorly motivated for one, it should have been Will Ferrell he walked out for, not the less significant character of his other son, and secondly because this seems to come out of the blue without any motivation or moral wavering. At the end, Caan joins in the Christmas Carol singalong but even this has to come with a little prodding in a film like this, it should have been a character transformation akin to Scrooges suddenly bursting out into song and dancing with the joy of life at the end of A Christmas Carol (1843).
Jon Favreau next stayed in the fantasy genre and proved himself with the surprisingly good childrens film Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), then went onto the Marvel Comics adaptation Iron Man (2008) and its sequel Iron Man 2 (2010), the science-fiction Western Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and the live-action The Jungle Book (2016). He also acts as executive producer on the post-catastrophic tv series Revolution (2012-4), Iron Man Three (2013), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018).
(No. 7 on the SF, Horror & Fantasy Box-Office Top 10 of 2003 list).