In addition to Love Actually and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” the Jon Favreau-directed family comedy Elf is one of the few pop-culture efforts to enter the Christmas canon in the last 20 years. It’s easy to see how it got there: The film is steeped in holiday tradition, with visuals influenced by the Rankin/Bass specials of Christmas past and a narrative sequenced like a bedtime story. Will Ferrell’s journey from the North Pole to New York City arrived in theaters pre-packaged for perennial TV reruns, so it’s a bit of a mystery why the owners of that property would want to cannibalize those regular airings with an animated retelling of the same “human raised by elves” tale.
The explanation rests in one of the film’s signature lines: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear,” which is taken to heart in the play on which Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas is based. Marrying that source material to the stop-motion components of the original Elf, Buddy’s Musical Christmas won’t supplant its big-screen inspiration—but it sure is a sight to behold.
Having worked on Robot Chicken’s first Star Wars special and It’s A SpongeBob Christmas!, Buddy’s Musical Christmas directors Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh are well versed in re-animating beloved franchises. Their take on Elf has the handmade quality of vintage stop-motion holiday specials, the closest approximation of The Year Without A Santa Claus or A Claymation Christmas Celebration this side of Community’s second-season Christmas installment. There’s a caricature-esque quality to Caballero and Walsh’s characters and the tiny Manhattan they inhabit; it’s part picture book, part Al Hirschfeld. The special’s puppets are pliable enough for limb-twisting cartoon slapstick, yet constructed from everyday materials whose textures bring a reach-out-and-you-might-touch-them realism: The textiles of Buddy’s elf getup, for example, or the coarse bristles that make up Santa Claus’ beard.
The confidence of the visuals compensates for the shakiness of the narrative, an outcome that’s inevitable when 97 minutes of story are compressed to fit a 43-minute runtime with musical and commercial interludes. Taking a cue from the theatrical adaptation, the roles of Santa Claus (Ed Asner, reprising his big-screen turn) and Bob Newhart’s Papa Elf are fused together into an MTM Enterprises Voltron of Yuletide tough love. Jovie, the love interest played by Zooey Deschanel on film and Garfunkel And Oates’ Kate Micucci on TV, fares worse, losing some dimensions even as she gains one of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s best songs, a Rockefeller Center duet with Buddy (voiced here by Jim Parsons). Not every song is a winner, but a few showstoppers are translated from stage to screen, like the splashy tree-trimming number “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” and the Chicago-style lament “Nobody Cares About Santa Claus.” While Jovie is shortchanged—and so are the members of Buddy’s stepfamily—Buddy’s Musical Christmas adds some dramatic stakes by twisting a genuine villain out of Peter Dinklage’s Elf character, who’s renamed, reconfigured, and given the nails-on-chalkboard voice of Gilbert Gottfried.
Narratively and emotionally rushed, at least Buddy’s Musical Christmas smartly emphasizes its animated nature, through visual inventiveness and top-flight voice talent. (Having staked out a career resurgence with his spectacularly over-the-top turn as Batman: The Animated Series’ Joker, Mark Hamill is practically unrecognizable as Buddy’s wet-blanket, naughty-listed father.) By repeating themes of identity, family, and belief that are covered in 75 percent of Christmas entertainment—including both previous versions of this story—Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas doesn’t make a strong case for its existence. But the sights and sounds surrounding those themes are worth a tune-in, even if there’s another Elf on another channel busy spreading cheer by singing loud for all to hear.