Holiday movies often have one overlapping commonality: The majority of them are terrible. Many work too hard for their humor, tell thin stories bonded by unearned sentimentality, and think any atrocities throughout the picture will be forgiven if the ending is sappy and heartfelt enough. Christmas with the Kranks (2004) comes to mind -- a dreadfully unfunny Christmas movie with complete ignorance of its stupidity and truly frightening subtext. That's why year after year, we're still watching titles like Home Alone (1990), Christmas Vacation (1989), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) -- it seems only one or two Christmas films per decade are worth remembering.
Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003) does its best to avoid the pitfalls of the typical holiday film, and has since become regarded as a modern classic. The idea of an enormous 6’3” Will Ferrell gallivanting around New York City as a human who was raised in the North Pole and thinks he’s an elf sounds like an absurd premise, and that’s because it is. But throughout Elf, the film proves to be something deeper than its surface first implies. The film pulls together an excellent fusion of casting, writing, costuming, direction, humor (and just enough of the requisite Christmas sentiment) that equate to a balanced story. It has all the elements that compose a holiday classic without the traps that turn holiday films to mush.
The Black List writes, “What makes Buddy, and the Christmas spirit of Elf, so special is just how completely visual they are presented. You can literally have the volume off while watching, or not even know the English language to begin with, and Buddy’s fish-out-of-water escapade will be as simple to follow and to be entertained by as a Saturday morning cartoon. Ferrell’s big, childlike gestures and physical humor are a hyper surreal performance that meshes the best elements of Jim Carey and Peter Sellers, within the juvenile boundaries of a naive, lunchbox-toting 8-year old.” Christmas characters this quirky, like that animated elf who wanted to be a dentist, are memorable.
Elf's premise is that many years ago while Santa was doing his annual deliveries, a baby wandered into his famous sack of toys and got whisked back to the north pole. Wearing "Buddy" brand diapers, that became his name as he was raised by Papa Elf, wonderfully played by Bob Newhart (who also narrates the film). As Buddy grows older and realizes he’s not as good at elf-things as the other real elves in Santa’s workshop, Buddy figures maybe something is up. Sure enough, Papa Elf and Santa (Ed Asner) reveal the truth, and Buddy sets off to New York City in search of his real father, Walter (James Caan). Buddy’s North Pole introduction is cheerful and humorous thanks to the contrast of Ferrell’s hugeness against his surroundings and the emotional setup of the narrative, not because the film stoops to stupid humor the way one might expect, and the way it surely could have. Forced perspective and throwback visuals referencing the style of holiday favorites like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) keep the sequence’s visual style inventive and engaging as buddy transitions from his life of fantasy to the real world.
ScreenRant adds, “Will Ferrell as Buddy outgrows by leaps and bounds his little pals, and we see how hard he tries to fit in, clueless that he’s not a real elf. Again this is played straight, wide-eyed, and not tongue in cheek by Ferrell, and he keeps up this performance throughout the entire film. And therein lies the charm of this movie. You get the feeling that you’re watching this character who’s really 6 years old on the inside (but is a fast learner) trying to figure out how the world works, and oblivious to the fact that everyone isn’t as kind and giving as he is.”
Casting a career grump and tough guy like James Caan as Buddy’s father Walter was the right move. Casting Mary Steenburgen as Walter's understanding and supportive wife was equally smart, as she provides just the right amount of balance as the pivot between the off-the-wall enthusiasm of Buddy and the self-serving hardness of Walter. An unfamiliar pre-Game of Thrones (2011) Peter Dinklage even has a small bit part in the film that ends in a spirited throwdown over the usage of the word elf.
Favreau’s direction keeps the story moving along at a comfortable pace, managing the moments of humor and sentiment and holiday schmaltz at just the right intervals, never allowing any component to overwhelm the picture. Many holiday films seem to be directed with an indifference Favreau is keen to avoid. At the time of Elf’s release, he had only one other directorial feature under his belt. The occasionally trite camerawork sometimes shows the director’s still-inexperienced handle behind the camera, but Favreau seems to know how he wants the film to be composed, and received.
As Buddy's father and everyone around him seem content on labeling him a nut, department store holiday elf Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) helps bring out the best in the film’s central character. She teaches him to appreciate himself, while he teaches her something of the same. By the end, Buddy even manages to spread that merriment to his father. The ending of Elf is pretty close to cliché and easily predictable, but the presentation of the collective material doesn’t leave a sour taste despite the ending sentiment.
Mostly Movies writes, “Elf succeeds because it doesn’t ever pander for either cheap laughs or cheap sentiment. It’s not tacky, it’s not kitsch, and it’s never mean-spirited. Ultimately it’s the performances that really sell it. The cast of Ferrell, Deschanel, Caan, and several others make us believe in their characters, and play it strong enough that we might almost, if we really want to, believe in Santa too. Or to at least return to a simpler time in our lives when we did believe in such fantasy.”
The result is surprisingly effective. Even Roger Ebert found the film much better than expected, writing, “This is one of those rare Christmas comedies that has a heart, a brain and a wicked sense of humor, and it charms the socks right off the mantelpiece.”
Elf is the type of Christmas comedy that seems aware of the kind of film it doesn’t want to be. In makes an effort to avoid the traps of mediocrity inherent in the genre. It knows the difference between sentiment and sap, understands the way people really feel about the holidays, and is cast so perfectly that despite its flaws, it stands as a memorable holiday experience that makes you smile.
And as Buddy says, "I like to smile. Smiling's my favorite."