How Elf Became A Christmas Classic That Spoke To A Generation
The number of Christmas movies that hold up as years go on is remarkably low. It’s a high bar for a movie to clear. After you’ve cast great acting duos, these movies have to be sweet and light without feeling saccharine. They have to capture why people love Christmas without screaming about it. A great Christmas movie has to be about what makes Christmas special in a world where people only feel the need to be nice to one another once a year.
Elf, which came out 15 years ago this November, is perhaps the most recent example of a successful Christmas movie. From director Jon Favreau, the film follows Buddy, a human raised as an elf in the North Pole who travels to Manhattan to find his real father.
As played by Will Ferrell, Buddy is a happy, energetic, annoying man-child. As any good elf would, he loves Christmas and Santa. He’s a candy-covered boy amazed by the simplest things.
The Cynicism of Elf’s World
When Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his father, Walter, he finds a harsher, colder world than he imagined. Walter works for a children’s publishing company, but that job is not as wondrous as it should be. Buddy finds Walter quickly, and the movie becomes about what Walter and his new family are going to do with him.
James Caan plays Walter as a miserable, angry man. It’s a typically curmudgeonly performance, but Caan manages to imbue Walter with a sense of regret. He wants to be happier than he is.
Elf wouldn’t work if Walter was the only one who was miserable. What Elf suggests is not that Walter is particularly mean or angry. Instead, it argues that Walter was broken by the world he lives in. Walter is a symptom, not the root cause.
That’s why, when Buddy shows up, nobody really knows what to do with him. He tags along with Walter at his job for a day and ends up wasted in the mailroom. He gets a job working at a department store and decorates the toy department to excess. Ferrell is really delivering in these scenes — probably the only actor in the world who could convincingly play Buddy’s enthusiasm. The thing that he gets across most clearly is how annoying Buddy is. His naivete is endearing, but it also makes him impossible to deal with. To their credit, both Farrell and Favreau seem to know this.
Why Elf Works as a Christmas Movie
It’s precisely because Buddy is so annoying that the movie is able to deliver its goodwill Christmas message. His enthusiasm is an aberration, and it makes it hard for those around him to live normal lives. Inevitably, it’s also infectious.
If Walter is the character most annoyed by Buddy’s presence, then Jovie is the character most inspired by him. Zooey Deschanel’s performance is Elf’s secret weapon. Walter feels like a man who’s been beaten down by his job. By contrast, Jovie just doesn’t seem to care anymore. Buddy’s behavior is strange for her because he cares about everything so much. He’s not indifferent about anything.
Deschanel’s performance is revelatory because, despite her flat affect, she’s remarkably engaging. She’s enthusiastic about Buddy, and ultimately about the values he represents. The shift in her character from completely apathetic to enthusiastic and engaged works only because she makes it work.
Elf’s real argument is that feeling things is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Having spirit, Christmas or otherwise is not silly or sappy. It’s just part of being alive.
Elf works as a Christmas movie because it’s a refutation of the idea that Christmas movies are silly or hokey. There are definitely people who don’t like Elf, but the movie was able to guard itself against a major critique. It seems to argue that if these people can be inspired by Buddy, you can too. Surely you aren’t more cynical than Walter, or more disaffected than Jovie.
Elf is a movie about Christmas for a generation that doesn’t believe in the holiday anymore. It’s a movie that suggests that holiday spirit is both annoying and deeply endearing. Those who run around yelling about Christmas, or posting about it on social media, drive everyone crazy. What Elf argues is that annoying people are often right, and there’s nothing wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve.
15 years ago, Buddy the elf reminded us that being excited about stuff is fun. Christmas is something to be excited about. We didn’t need any kind of gritty reboot to remind us of that. Instead, we needed a movie about the human embodiment of joy running around New York City spreading the word about how great Christmas is.