6. Elf (2003)

Christmas is a holiday embedded in folklore, myth, and fairytale. So far, each of the movies we have touched on have steered clear of such ideologies. While presenting the fantasy aspect of Christmas in a film can be challenging (and paradoxical), when done properly, it can be magical. Elf is simple fairy tale of a film that takes on the entire Christmas mythology while adding its own specifics (i.e. food groups of elves, candy cane forests, other elf careers, and a jet pack on Santa’s sleigh). With the loud personality of Will Ferrell and the bodacious arrival of mainstream director Jon Favreau, Elf is a film that resonates with the magic of Christmas.

Elf is really a comedy about juxtaposition. It is a film that takes a protagonist out of his element, in fact, as far out as he can possibly be. Buddy is a human that was accidentally stolen by Santa and raised by elves. Once he grows up, his predicament is revealed to him and he sets out to meet his real father, played by James Caan, the polar opposite of Will Ferrell.

The film exploits the talent of Will Ferrell for much of its run time, and there are several gags that are unnecessary to the film. But Elf is a much better star vehicle that uses Ferrell’s goofy charisma more effectively than the likes of Semi-pro, Blades of Glory, or Land of the Lost. And the film has enough other attributes and actors to keep the story afloat, and in many scenes, Ferrell’s goofiness actually seems appropriate. It would be hard to imagine another actor embodying the character of Buddy. I used to think he just fit family films better than adult comedies. Then I saw the trailer for Land of the Lost…

Love complicates Buddy’s life when he meets Zooey Deschanel, a Macy’s employee with a lovely singing voice. Buddy is thrown into James Caan’s family and sets out to spread Christmas cheer. The two people he must convert, in order to establish a successful life situation in New York City, are his father and Zooey Deschanel. Both of them lack Christmas spirit, and without that, their entire lives become essentially empty. Christmas spirit is the thesis of the film. It is a fable whose moral is spreading joy in a world where Christmas is dead.

The past decade offered countless horrid Christmas films. To name a few: Christmas with the Kranks, Four Christmases, Deck the Halls, The Polar Express, The Santa Clause 3, and A Christmas Carol (Zemeckis/Carrey edition). Elf was the warm bit of life amidst a disastrously straught genre. What makes Elf succeed where all others fail is a winning combination of heart and humor. Christmas films too often fall prey to ripping off Christmas Vacation and bleeding into Adam Sandler-mindless gag territory. Elf features and utilizes Will Ferrell while telling a heartfelt family story involving a neglected 10 year-old. It also creates a visually intriguing environment while not losing story to exploited visuals, Zemeckis-style.

As previously stated, the biggest flaws of the film are minor overdoses of Will Ferrell. The humor is very focused on overtly awkward situations. This is not necessarily a flaw of the film. But I feel like each audience member has a unique tolerance to awkwardness and therefore any film this focused on that branch of humor is bound to isolate most audience members for at least a scene or two. This film is no exception. For me, Buddy’s appearance at work is rather unfunny, but the rest of the film plays solidly. Similarly, audience members have a similar tolerance level for Will Ferrell. I have a very low tolerance, personally, but I really enjoy Elf, which is a testament to the film’s quality.

What I love about the character Buddy is the boundless, limitless joy that he feels towards everything Christmas. He is like a child. This is among the most exciting parts of Christmas. While the film obvious exaggerates Christmas and joy to be synonymous, if you’ve ever watched five year-old open a Christmas present, you may find that two come closer than you’d expect.  A few years ago at Christmas, all of my adult relatives found themselves peeling back the wrapping paper to see items of necessity that brought them no joy whatsoever. My five year-old cousin Andrew got a book. He can’t read. He probably didn’t know what the book was. And he didn’t care. He loved it. That’s the kind of Christmas spirit captured by Elf. Watching this movie is like singing carols with a large group of strangers, or putting the star on the tree, or having the most epic snowball fight in the history of cinema. While my tolerance for Ferrell may be low, this film makes up for it effortlessly. Elf is a magical, fairy tale of a film that gets fully swept off its feet by Christmas. You’d have to be quite a Scrooge to not get caught up yourself.

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