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Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: David Berenbaum
Stars: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel
Release Date: November 7, 2003
Run time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
On Christmas Eve, an orphaned baby crawls into Santa Claus‘s sack at the sight of a teddy bear, and is unwittingly taken back to the North Pole from an orphanage. After the infant is discovered at the workshop, the elves name him Buddy after his diaper’s brand label.
Buddy is accepted by the elf community and grows up to adulthood believing he is an elf, despite being twice the size of every other elf and inept at toymaking, but soon overhears that he is a human. Papa Elf explains to him that he was born to Walter Hobbs and the late Susan Wells, and that Susan put him up for adoption prior to her death. Walter is now the Executive Vice President at Greenway Press, a book publisher at the Empire State Building in New York City, unaware of Buddy’s existence. Santa reveals that Walter is on the Naughty List due to his selfishness, but suggests Buddy could help redeem him with some Christmas spirit.
Buddy travels to New York and finds Walter at work, but Walter mistakes him for a Christmas-gram messenger and has him ejected. Walter’s security guards sarcastically tell Buddy to go to a local Gimbels department store, where he meets Jovie, an unenthusiastic employee with whom he is instantly smitten. Hearing that Santa will be at the store to make an appearance the following day, Buddy redecorates the store overnight. However, discovering that the Gimbels Santa is not the genuine article, Buddy unmasks him and causes a brawl that the manager breaks up.
Walter reluctantly bails Buddy out of the police station and takes him for a DNA test, which confirms that Buddy is his biological son. Dr. Leonardo convinces Walter to take Buddy home to meet his stepmother Emily and half-brother Michael. Buddy’s strange behavior unnerves Walter and Michael, but Emily insists that they take care of him until he “recovers.” Michael warms up to Buddy after they defeat a gang of bullies in a snowball fight and encourages him to ask Jovie out on a date. During the date, the two fall in love.
Meanwhile, Walter’s publishing company is failing after their latest book flops. Walter’s boss, Fulton Greenway, expects Walter to have a new book ready by Christmas Eve. Walter and his team secure a meeting with best-selling children’s author Miles Finch, but Buddy interrupts the meeting and mistakes Finch, who has dwarfism, for an elf. Buddy unintentionally insults Finch before the latter attacks him and angrily leaves the meeting, upon which Walter loses his temper and harshly disowns Buddy. Heartbroken, Buddy writes an apology note on an Etch A Sketch and leaves Walter’s apartment.
Upon finding Finch’s notebook full of ideas, Walter and his team scramble to create a book to pitch. As Walter prepares to pitch the book to Greenway, Michael arrives and informs Walter of Buddy’s departure. Realizing his mistake, Walter quits his job and walks out with Michael to find Buddy. Meanwhile, Buddy sees Santa’s sleigh crash in Central Park, attracting a large crowd. Santa explains that the sleigh’s engine is lost and cannot fly without it due to a shortage of Christmas spirit.
Buddy finds the engine and reunites with Walter and Michael. Walter apologizes to Buddy for how he treated him and finally accepts him as his son. After Buddy takes them to meet Santa, Michael takes Santa’s list and reads it out in front of television news cameras, proving that Santa is real. A group of Central Park Rangers, who are angry at Santa for placing them on the Naughty List, chase the sleigh as Buddy tries to reattach the engine. Jovie leads the crowd and those watching on television in singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” raising enough Christmas spirit to fully power the sleigh without the engine.
By the following Christmas, Buddy writes a book about his life, which becomes a bestseller and allows Walter to establish his own publishing company. Buddy also marries Jovie and brings their newborn daughter Susie to visit Papa Elf.
If you’re having a hard time finding the Christmas spirit, Elf is among the better recent remedies. The modern Christmas classic is a joyful and funny story, rooted in a message of love, innocence, family togetherness, and belief. I just watched it and I am in a better mood . In fact, I’m considering making spaghetti and pouring syrup all over it. The success of the film lies with Will Ferrell’s performance. It would be easy to put a fully grown man into an elf costume, and for the film to go in a weird or creepy direction. Somehow the movie avoids that. Ferrell commits so deeply to the innocence of Buddy that the audience has no choice but to buy in, too, and we are rewarded for that buy-in with a movie that has an enormous amount of heart.
The excellent performances do not end with Ferrell. Bob Newhart is warm and subtly funny as Papa Elf. James Caan is an amazing grumpy father who learns to open his heart, just as Mary Steenburgen hits all the right notes for being believable as someone who would welcome a grown man, who seems to have a mental disorder, into her home. I also thought Zooey Deschanel was completely believable as the department-store job having girl who could fall for Buddy’s innocent charm.
The plot is more or less what you would expect. Buddy is a fish out of water, both in the North Pole, and initially in New York, with countless comedic misunderstandings happening around him in both places. In the end, though, he is precisely what his new friends and family need and he manages to bridge the two worlds together.
The movie’s theme is an argument against cynicism. Buddy’s new family is distant, loveless, and unconnected. Buddy’s department store celebrates Christmas, but lacks belief. Even small details, such as a coffee shop touting itself as having “the world’s best coffee” is played to great effect because Buddy takes their sign seriously, when no one else does. Buddy completely lacks cynicism, and his wholesome belief makes everyone around him a little bit better versions of themselves.
The ultimate problem in the movie is that the world has become so jaded that there is not enough Christmas cheer to power Santa’s sleigh anymore. However, Buddy’s timely trip to New York City rallies the people who know him to take action on Christmas Eve, to increase the cheer in the city, and to save the holiday. As Santa starts to fly, he notes that it’s just like the old days. A lot of Christmas movies work as an appeal to “the old days” and what that often means is a return to the innocence of childhood. Elf is a more explicit take on that theme but delivers it wonderfully.
My only complaint with the movie is that it did not shoot for a G rating. There are a few mostly unnecessary bad words throughout, which if removed, might have made the difference in making the movie a little safer for smaller kids. There are a couple of violent scenes, but those are so silly that I doubt even many small kids would have a problem with them. Early on, innocent Buddy is attacked by a not-so-innocent raccoon. Another time, he is hit by a taxi but bounces up immediately. Maybe the toughest scenes in the movie, for very small kids, are the angry adults shouting in the publishing office at a couple different points. On the whole, I would guess this movie is safe for kids between about 7 and 9 years old, depending on the sensitivity of those kids.
My favorite scene in the movie, and something of a turning point in Buddy’s journey with his family, is the snowball fight scene. Buddy and his newfound younger brother are attacked by a small army of neighborhood snowball wielding bullies. As it turns out, Buddy – who grew up in the North Pole – is up to the challenge of taking on an army of kids all by himself. This is the point wherein he wins the support of his younger brother and when his time in New York City starts to improve.
Maybe I just like seeing kids be absolutely pummeled with snowballs.
Elf is a really funny movie, with a lot of laugh out loud moments, but it’s a *great* and rewatchable movie because it has so much heart. It’s difficult to watch Elf without feeling better about your life and the state of the world when the credits are rolling. If you don’t have it within you to get Santa’s sleigh going, I recommend a rewatch.
Have you seen Elf? What do you think?