Written by: David Berenbaum
Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Edward Asner
In a world full of cynicism, you can’t blame someone for lacking in Christmas spirit, but sometimes you need those individuals who can help rejuvenate everyone’s hearts through the simplest of actions. Above all, that’s where Elf finds its magic and how its legacy has continued to grow since its release. Incredibly hilarious with an immense amount of heart to go around for all.
Having snuck into Santa’s bag as a baby, Buddy (Will Ferrell) was raised as an elf but he stands out. He cannot keep up and stands at over six feet tall. When he learns he’s not an elf but actually a human, he heads to New York City to help save his biological father after hearing he’s on the naughty list.
Cemented as a Christmas classic, Elf comes full of quotable lines and memorable moments that many can quickly recite. The fantastic comedy certainly helps in the way it depicts a fish-out-of-water story but it particularly works well because it lies right in the comedic tendencies of its lead actor. Will Ferrell has found plenty of success with studio comedies and a common theme of his hits come with taking roles where he looks absolutely ridiculous and part of the overall humor comes in his appearance. This very much takes place in this movie as he walks around New York City dressed as an elf. I guess this metropolitan has seen stranger things, which explains why not many people on the street react to his behavior and clothing choice. It would be something to see Buddy in a small town in Arkansas to witness the reaction there. Ferrell knows he looks ridiculous but it all comes with the fun.
Fish-out-of-water stories rarely fail because they have the ability to bring in someone unattached to our culture and make fun of it in an unknowing manner. Buddy was raised with endless optimism and enjoyment for life, which makes his entry into a city as busy as New York so hilarious. He sees gum on handrails and believes them to be free candy. The streets have lines for directional assistance and he assumes they are set for a game. All of these aspects become second nature and simply part of our way of living. It also helps that Buddy does not understand the cultural norms of the society so when he sees a shop claiming they have the best coffee in the world, he actually believes it.
The plot revolves around Buddy connecting with his biological father and it becomes a battle between someone who believes in the power of Christmas and another who cares more about work and money. The genuine excitement Buddy has when approaching Walter (James Caan) gets met with disbelief, which genuinely makes sense if you put yourself in the father’s shoes. It takes a paternity test to verify the relation, which makes Walter hope Buddy can eventually get over this episode of dressing like an elf. This battle of the wills says plenty about both of them because while Buddy may act like an elf, the genuine cheer and excitement he brings in life sits antithetical to the world Walter has lived. He does not believe someone like Buddy could possibly be this happy, which makes him bringing Buddy to work an attempt to suppress it. Walter obviously knows having a job upends all sorts of childlike wonder and hopes this will eventually snap Buddy into a reality of seeing the world as he does. This may have been the first film where I watched James Caan growing up, which really set the standard for when I would later see him as the aggressive Sonny in The Godfather. Caan wonderfully mixes the brute nature of this character with the soft middle underneath the rough exterior.
Another foundational relationship Buddy forms comes with the love interest Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), who he meets when mistaken for an employee dressed as an elf at a Gimbel’s. With Jovie is where he discovers love and forms his first attachment to modern society outside of the North Pole. Their romance has plenty of sweetness to it, but it does raise some interesting questions on her part. I understand why Buddy would find her attractive, but considering he acts like a nine-year-old child, I’m more concerned about why Jovie falls in love with him. It could be the same parallel with Walter where it’s more so what Buddy represents in the story as a ray of positivity but I guess height really makes a difference. Having seen this film dozens of times throughout my life, this observation continues to get a bit stranger as I get older and understand what it’s like to be in an adult relationship.
With the story taking place in a modern world, Santa has trouble powering his sleigh because not enough people believe in him and his existence. This story idea works so well, especially considering my wife and I debate whether or not we’ll even tell our children about Santa Claus. It’s so easy to forget about Santa and what he represents in the world. He does not actually exist (sorry if you’re reading this as a Santa believer) but he stands as a symbol to spread and share Christmas cheer. His iconography matters more than his actual existence. Throughout this story, this idea gets spread by Buddy to all of the individuals he touches and where the magic lies.
There are so many reasons why Elf has become a movie families rewatch around the Christmas holiday and I only touched upon a few of them. It has genuine laughs and plenty of emotion to run through with it. Buddy comes in as a symbol as much as he is a person. He enters the cynical and cold atmosphere of the big city to melt it all away with this cheer and genuine compassion for others. His naivete makes for so many great jokes but even he has a place in this world, no matter his quirks.