Elves is a brisk, familiar bit of genre entertainment, but it’s let down by ropey visual effects, arch characters, and predictability.
This review of Elves is spoiler-free.
Christmastime means Christmas everything, especially when it comes to media – Christmas shorts, Christmas romance, and now Christmas horror, though it’s a bit of a stretch to call Elves horror unless you’re terrified of ropey visual effects, which I suppose you might be. Either way, though, with an odd Sunday release, the right mix of genres, and a breezy runtime, this Danish miniseries might find just the right audience for its peculiarities.
It helps that the early-going leans against an age-old trope – a precocious kid, in this case Josefine (Sonja Steen), takes in a tiny creature that she begins to secretly care for. It’s E.T. with teeth, essentially, though complicated by the fact that the critter, a teeny forest elf, has a gang of relatives in the nearby woodland, which has been fenced-off by the locals to preserve an uneasy peace. Since Josefine’s family are holidaying on a remote Scandinavian island where the locals clearly don’t want them, their meddling isn’t exactly welcome, and before long everyone is trapped in a battle for survival against PS2-era computer graphics and weird-looking toothy puppets.
Just like how Josefine’s attempts to baby the creature are reminiscent of holiday family entertainment classics, the eerie island setting and deeply suspicious locals evoke horror of all stripes, but particularly the secretive folkloric kind (the show’s original title, Nisser, is the name for Nordic gnome-like creatures in tall red hats). It’s a decent-enough set up for a silly story, but it’s undercut by brisk 20-ish-minute episodes that feel like all the character development and worldbuilding are playing on fast-forward. We don’t really get a sense of what Josefine’s new pet is until we’re supposed to fear it, and yet there’s no real sense of why we should fear it or its brethren, which are only rarely glimpsed until close to the end. Even then, we don’t really get a sense of the real history behind their presence on the island, or the motivations of the locals in staying there beyond some vague cultural preservation angle, and if you thought about the whole thing even a little bit you’d be unable to answer some pretty serious questions.
Then again, this kind of thing isn’t really designed to be questioned; it’s a familiar entertainment with arch characters and broad themes designed to be enjoyed on a facile, surface level. That’s admittedly harder to do given how shockingly cheap all the beasties look, but Elves itself is a typically handsome piece of work, and you get the sense the actors were really trying to sell the material, especially Ann Eleonora Jørgensen as a stern local named, fittingly, Karen. Some sequences build decent suspense, and while Josefina is one of the more annoying child characters I’ve seen in quite some time, her brother Kasper (Milo Campanale) and his love-interest local Liv (Vivelill Søgaard Holm) are a believable pairing whose fates I was relatively invested in.
Everyone else, not so much. Josefine’s strained relationship with her parents – she’s at that age where she thinks she’s an adult and they still feel she’s a child – is trite, and nobody really has any depth. The lack of exploration when it comes to the folklore is similarly disappointing and undercuts some of the potential tension; when it’s hard to care about who’s going to die or to understand what’s going to kill them, a show like Elves has little else to offer. Even the gore is tame.
There’s nothing egregiously bad here, but some wonky visuals and design, thin characterization and worldbuilding, a tokenistic environmentalism undertone, and a predictable structure all conspire to bring the whole thing down. Visit this island at your own peril.