The Independent Newsweekly
|At the Movies|
Issue Date: December 12, 2003
Bravery and sweetness of men and elves
Maritime 'Master and Commander' celebrates ideal of bravery; 'Elf' is a sweet fish-out-of-water tale
By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
After a long season of multiplex junk, the big studios have begun to lay out a few gifts for Christmas. Except for dedicated fans of Patrick OBrians 20-volume series about the exploits of the British navy in the age of Napoleon, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World should be a satisfyingly rousing adventure. Even director Peter Weir cant communicate the literary grace and the psychological insight of the original, but for once a huge budget hasnt translated into bloated inanity. The movie brilliantly conveys the sense of life on a sailing ship in the early 19th-century British navy, capturing its sounds and dangers, its routine and adventure, and its sense of hierarchy leavened by deep comradeship.
Master and Commander is a strong argument for the necessity of authority and celebrates the traditional ideals of bravery, honor and duty. It also increases its chances for popularity in the United States by changing the time frame of its story -- in OBrians original, it was during the war of 1812, when the British were fighting us. But Weir gets the shipboard details of the time in their proper place and puts his audience at the center of the films complex action, making it clear that life at sea was mostly a long lull between occasional emergencies. Nor does he hide the cost of the leadership it celebrates, whether on a young midshipman who has not won the respect of his men, or on Maturins hopes to pursue his naturalist interests at the Galápagos Islands: We dont have time for damned hobbies, sir! Aubrey bursts out irritably when the former is eager to hunt for new specimens.
Understandably, this is a movie in which women are essentially absent, though the captain glances admiringly at one of the native women off the Brazilian coast before dutifully writing a letter home to his wife. Russell Boyds impressionistic cinematography concentrates on the changing skies and threatening seas while examining every rope on the ship. The women who were at the showing I attended found the combination of male heroism and shipboard housekeeping fascinating, though by the end my wife admitted she felt a little seasick.
Elf is a family-friendly comedy that director Jon Favreau has aimed primarily at younger children, but it should also manage to hold the interest of many parents. The latter may initially resist the obvious exploitation of Santa Claus, played by Ed Asner, at whose North Pole workshop elf Will Ferrell (Buddy) grows up after being accidentally taken away as an infant in Santas toy sack. Although Saturday Night Lives Ferrell remains unselfconscious among his 2-foot toy-making companions, were somewhat relieved when Bob Newhart, Santas kindly work boss, who has tried to be a good foster father to Buddy, sends him on the inevitable quest to find his real father.
This happily means a trip to Manhattan, where David Berenbaums bright screenplay seems to relax and Buddy will almost get run over for gaping goofily at skyscrapers while crossing the street. His cynical father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a childrens book editor who works in the Empire State Building, has him thrown out of the building but is forced to take him in after a DNA test establishes his identity. Elf manages to get humor out of the department store exploitation of Christmas when Buddy is taken on along with other elf-temporaries to work at Gimbels, and quickly becomes enchanted by the wide-eyed Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).
At the Hobbs home, Buddys sweetness gradually manages to wear down his younger half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay). Emily (Mary Steenburgen), his foster-mother, is prepared to accept this mystery child from her husbands past, but his father, Walter, remains preoccupied by his need for a sure-fire childrens bestseller. Aides at the publishing house even call on the advice of midget Peter Dinklage (fresh from The Station Agent) as a wildly successful and conceited author, but the latter takes offense when Buddy calls him an elf.
Cause and effect take a beating in a movie like this; when Jovie gets to work early and takes a shower in the store, Buddy, who has slept in the store overnight, is enthralled by her singing. Ferrell succeeds by constantly playing his role straight, his unflappability eventually becoming infectious. Although Elf endorses all the obvious family values, some parents may grow alarmed at the way Buddy constantly encourages a diet featuring cookies, syrup and candy. Despite all that sweetness, Elf manages to remain jaunty rather than saccharine.
Inevitably, the plot has to give Buddy and Jovie an opportunity to sing Baby, Its Cold Outside and to bring all its characters together for Santas crash landing in Central Park. Before its over, a threat from the dark-clad Park Rangers has been foiled, Walter has told off his bosses, and all those usually grumpy New Yorkers have found their way into the park to remind each other to be good for goodness sake. If its over the top, its also good fun.
Joseph Cunneen, NCRs regular movie reviewer, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 2003
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