Will Ferrell graduates to his first solo leading role with flying colors in a holiday comedy about a clueless innocent who saves Christmas and fosters a renewed sense of family in his reluctant father. Sweet-natured outsider fantasy neither skimps on nor overplays its sentimentality, which should make it a major family audience draw through the holidays.

Will Ferrell graduates to his first solo leading role with flying colors in “Elf,” a disarming holiday comedy about a clueless innocent who saves Christmas and fosters a renewed sense of family in his reluctant father. Recalling seasonal comedies like “The Santa Clause” and the child-as-adult humor of “Big,” the film feels slightly stitched together rather than having the assured classical storybook flow of, say, “Shrek.” But the sweet-natured outsider fantasy neither skimps on nor overplays its sentimentality, which should make it a major family audience draw for New Line through the holidays.

While the Nov. 7 release date seems marginally early for the Christmas market, the same timeslot has been successfully mined in years past by “The Santa Clause” and “The Santa Clause 2,” which respectively grossed $144 million and $139 million on domestic release.

Grouped with “Freaky Friday” and “School of Rock,” “Elf” represents another solid entry in a better-than-average season for studio family comedies. And while it seems unlikely to transcend age barriers to the extent of the Jack Black vehicle, this second outing as director for actor Jon Favreau has a hint of adult edge thanks to Ferrell’s spirited mix of absurdity, naivete and physicality, plus enough agreeably off-color humor to counter its cuteness.

Recounted in fairy-tale style, the story concerns an orphanage baby who crawls inside Santa’s gift sack while the bearded rotund one (Edward Asner) inhales cookies. Inadvertently transported back to the North Pole and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), young Buddy (Ferrell) — named for his diaper brand — fast outgrows his fellow elves in the toy workshop and soon towers over his adoptive dad. To make things even more awkward, Buddy is all thumbs when building toys and can’t keep up the production pace. Realizing he’ll never fit in, he leaves the nest for New York City to find his real family.

The film achieves much of its buoyancy from Ferrell’s exuberant physical comedy and the character’s immensely likeable guilelessness. The actor’s rangy 6 foot-plus frame is wedged in ungainly fashion into the dinky North Pole structures — squatting in an elf-friendly bathroom or even leaping onto disconcerted Papa Elf’s diminutive lap for comforting. While it’s mercifully distant from the saccharine whimsy of films like “Toys,” there’s a certain kiddy preciousness to the early action in an artificial environment replete with CGI snow creatures and candy cane fields, but this dissolves fast when Buddy hits Manhattan.

Ferrell gets considerable mileage from the comic opportunities of an oafish full-grown man, dressed in an elf suit and yellow tights, raised in Toyland and experiencing the big city for the first time. He earns steady laughs delightedly eating discarded gum, spinning in revolving doors, hopping over pedestrian crossings, warily negotiating an escalator and effusively greeting hard-nosed New Yorkers.

Buddy’s encounter with his father Walter (James Caan) proves difficult. A cynical children’s book publisher with little time for his wife (Mary Steenburgen) or son Michael (Daniel Tay), Walter has even less patience with the crazed intruder claiming to be a son he never knew, from a relationship with a now-deceased college sweetheart.

Tossed out of Walter’s Empire State building offices by security, Buddy dutifully obeys the instruction to try Gimbels, ending up on staff in the department store’s Christmas merchandise area. But while he develops an awkward bond with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a seemingly jaded holiday staffer with a warm heart and an elf costume, and gives the lackluster North Pole display a dazzling makeover, Buddy gets fired for noisily disputing the authenticity of the store Santa. However, he manages to find a way into his father’s family, forming an alliance both with Walter’s warm-natured wife and with his own paternally neglected half-brother Michael.

David Berenbaum’s screenplay is by no means low on wit. But it travels in somewhat lurching mode between the fantasy North Pole opening and the more realist New York environments, switching back to a realm of the imagination with a cornball flavor in the final stretch when Santa returns to Gotham on Christmas Eve.

Like many actor-directors, Favreau thinks less in visual terms than in the service of storytelling and performance. However, he milks the constant stream of sight gags for maximum effect, aided immeasurably by Ferrell’s relentlessly cheerful, open-hearted, endearingly awkward performance.

Caan also scores as Buddy’s inevitably slow-softening father and Deschanel is once again a charmingly offbeat, this time almost literally elfin presence, though she’s somewhat under-used. Newhart and Asner both inject a sweeter side into their familiar personae, respectively dry and gruff. Perhaps the best of the supporting turns is Peter Dinklage, playing a surly opposite of his character in “The Station Agent” — a celebrated children’s book author who happens to be a dwarf. He reacts violently when Buddy tries to embrace him as a fellow elf in a hilarious scene that goes refreshingly against the usual p.c. caution. Favreau shows up briefly on-camera as a doctor.

Effects work is polished, meshing well with the pic’s spruced up seasonal look. Soundtrack is littered with Christmas standards, including some tunefully sung by Deschanel.

Elf

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Guy Walks Into a Bar production. Produced by Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki, Shauna Robertson. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Kent Alterman, Cale Boyter, Jimmy Miller, Julie Wixson Carmody. Co-producer, David Householter. Directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay, David Berenbaum.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Greg Gardiner; editor, Dan Lebental; music, John Debney; production designer, Rusty Smith; art director, Kelvin Humenny; set decorator, Johanne Hubert; costume designer, Laura Jean Shannon; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), David Husby; visual effects supervisor, Joe Bauer; assistant director, Jim Brebner; casting, Susie Farris. Reviewed at MGM screening room, New York, Oct. 21, 2003. (In Hamptons Film Festival -- Spotlight.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Buddy - Will Ferrell Walter - James Caan Papa Elf - Bob Newhart Santa - Edward Asner Emily - Mary Steenburgen Jovie - Zooey Deschanel Michael - Daniel Tay Gimbels Manager - Faizon Love Miles Finch - Peter Dinklage Deb - Amy Sedaris Fulton - Michael Lerner Morris - Andy Richter Doctor - Jon Favreau

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