Reviewed by Angel Cohn

Ever wonder how elves bested other diminutive creatures to become Santa's helpers? As this engaging and offbeat picture tells it, gnomes drink and trolls aren't toilet trained. Elves do like to talk, and Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) regales anyone who'll listen with the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), an motherless human infant who accidentally crept into Santa's bag and wound up at the North Pole. Soft-hearted Santa (Edward Asner) lets Papa Elf raise the baby, but things get awkward as Buddy matures: He can't keep up with the toy-making pace and must hunch in the tiny elf buildings. Having accidentally discovered that he's really human, Buddy decides to visit New York City in search of his birth father, Walter (James Caan). Ignoring Santa's warning that Walter's on the naughty list, Buddy treks into the candy-cane forest, through the Lincoln Tunnel and toward the Empire State Building, propelled by the dream of a dad who'll go ice-skating with him. His hopes are dashed when Walter takes one look at the grown man in bright yellow tights who claims to be his son and has him ejected. Buddy wanders into Gimbels department store, is mistaken for seasonal help and directed to the store's "North Pole" where, ignoring all attempts to tone down his Christmas fervor, Buddy decorates like crazy and charms attractive co-worker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). But a ruckus with a fake Kris Kringle lands Buddy in jail, jobless and in need of Walter's help. Walter reluctantly complies, takes Buddy home to his family (Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay) and even tries to get Buddy a new gig. But the transition from elf to regular Joe is tough. Ferrell shines in this holiday comedy, and the supporting cast helps ground his fish-out-of-water performance in reality; Deschanel, who can really sing, deserves kudos for her rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Director Jon Favreau keeps the guy-in-an-elf-suit act from degenerating into a too-long sketch, focusing on Buddy's naïve optimism, even in the face of harsh reality. The film's sense of humor is pitched to various age groups — adults will appreciate the debate over the "real" Ray's pizza, while kids can giggle at Ferrell testing Jack-in-the-boxes and tussling with a rabid raccoon — but the jokes never betray its heart-warming, not-too-sappy sentiments. Tiny details, like North Pole characters who look as though they stepped out of a Rankin-Bass Christmas special, an uncredited appearance by A CHRISTMAS STORY's Peter Billingsley and the use of Gimbels (Macy's competitor in MIRACLE ON 34th STREET) add to the film's knowing yet magical atmosphere.