The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! So is the credence of Jon Favreau’s bizarrely delightful ELF. Released in 2003, this doe-eyed yuletide treat has grown over the years into the most unexpected of Christmas classics…like ever. And it’s largely all thanks to the song in Will Ferrell’s oversized heart.
When ELF hit holiday screens, Ferrell was still on the cusp of stardom. He was clearly SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE’S MVP for the last several seasons, but his only major starring role in a Hollywood film at that moment was in the previous year’s OLD SCHOOL. While that movie is hilariously entertaining as well, Ferrell’s butt naked physique streaking down city roads while calling himself “Frank the Tank” is hardly the stuff of family films. Sure, Chevy Chase and Tim Allen had made the jump to Christmas flicks, but how could the raunchy Ferrell; whose brand of humor looked like a sexy leprechaun giving Conan O’Brien a lap dance? As it turns out, it’s that very earnest, do-anything-to-please-you attitude that makes ELF so special. Ferrell’s Buddy, an orphaned kid raised by Santa’s height-challenged helpers, is simply a good-natured child who craves everyone’s approval. Like the actor portraying him, Buddy’s genuine kindness makes him the rare holiday mixture of subversive goodwill that could warm the heart of any Scrooge.
Buddy is a lonely Elf. Despite being loved and accepted by all of the North Pole’s inhabitants, he knows there is just something not . . .quite . . . right. Finally during one holiday season, his Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) reveals that Buddy is in fact a 6’ 3’’ man in his thirties and the son of a New York children’s book publisher (who’s not an Elf either). So, Buddy sets out on a journey to meet his father and bring the Spirit of Christmas to the cynical denizens of the Big Apple. His odyssey takes him through many exotic locales like the Candy Cane Forest, the Sea of Swirly Twirly Gum Drops and the Lincoln Tunnel. But when he finally meets his real dad, Walter (James Caan), he is shocked to learn that he really is a misanthropic New Yorker. Luckily, with some holiday cheer and impressive decorating skills, Buddy teaches Walter and his family (Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Tay) the true meaning of Christmas just in time to help Santa Claus (Ed Asner).
ELF is truly a magical movie. So many of these holiday films are made every year by checking off studio-approved Christmas lists meant to do nothing more than pander to families. Favreau was apparently having none of that. By lovingly satirizing many of the seasonal traditions, he also openly embraces them. The film pokes fun at the 1960s Christmas animations like RUDOLPH THE REDNOSED REINDEER (read our review of that classic here: Rudolph), but obviously, at the same time, cherishes them like family ornaments. We as viewers both laugh and become giddy when Buddy waves goodbye to the North Pole Christmas Whale. Buddy wins over his father and his love interest through tongue-in-cheek musical numbers, but the film earnestly believes that this is the best way to spread peace on earth. When Buddy accidentally begins his courtship of department store “Elf” Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) by quietly joining in a Christmas duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” while she’s singing alone in the shower, it isn’t creepy or mean-spirited (anymore than the actual song is, at least). It’s funny and odd, but it’s all done with the very best of Christmas intentions. Jovie can forgive Buddy for his elfish ways because we already have.
Favreau builds a cast of strong supporting performances around Ferrell’s happy-go-lucky center to achieve that warm and fuzzy feeling. Caan plays the gruff Grinch who finds his heart by slowly understanding his childlike 30-something son with just the right amount of coldness and endearing self-deprecation. Steenburgen hits the right note as the doting and welcoming would-be stepmother who finds Buddy’s eccentricities charming rather than disturbing. And Deschanel may surprise those today who only think she can do “who’s that girl” on television. Jovie is far from the pixie hipster chick the actress is now known for. Yet, she will still win you over when she sings. The rest of the supporting cast is on point. Peter Dinklage has one of the most hysterical cameos you will ever see as The World’s Angriest Children’s Book Author who Buddy mistakes for a fellow Elf and Andy Richter, Amy Sedaris and Faizon Love help wrap the overall package in a big red bow.
However, the movie’s main gift will always remain Ferrell’s unique creation. When a comedian usually associated with adult audiences tries to do a family film, it can feel forced or smugly trite. Ferrell’s Buddy is none of those things. His sweet naiveté is contagious and can draw in any viewer. The way he sincerely believes that a New York diner has the world’s best cup of coffee just because it says so on a sign outside speaks volumes about the character. The neat trick about that though is we’re not laughing AT him. Buddy’s joyousness is something we want to aspire to rather than look down on. That is what truly makes the movie sing.
ELF turned out to be a big breakthrough for Ferrell’s career. It proved that he could appeal to an audience broader than just teenagers looking for crude humor and he could carry a film himself, without co-stars sharing top billing. It helped pave the way to ANCHORMAN, which made him a bona fide movie star the following year. It’s only now, as the years pass and we keep returning this unusual ball of season’s greetings that it becomes ever clearer what a special present this movie truly was. It has become so beloved that they’ve even turned it into a Broadway musical that plays on the Great White Way every December. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite match the strange quality of Ferrell’s Buddy and Favreau’s tone. That “fuzzy feeling” remains in what has become one of the best holiday movies ever made.
You did it! Congratulations! Decade’s Best Christmas movie! Great job, everybody! It’s great to meet you!