Looking back at Jon Favreau’s Elf

Just in time for Christmas, Louisa looks back at the holiday classic, Elf, one of the big festive hits of 2003...

Stand-up comedians and self-help gurus are right; the world is indeed divided into two groups of people. They’re wrong though, on what cleaves the two halves apart. It’s not the end from which we squeeze our toothpaste tube, or our stance on incompletely filled glasses of water, it’s divided by those who start their Christmas season with a ritual viewing of Elf, and those who don’t.

Film critic Mark Kermode belongs firmly in the second group after describing Jon Favreau’s 2003 comedy as a “godawful festive romp”, while actor John Barrowman sits happily in the first, having named the Will Ferrell fish-out-of-water flick as his favourite Christmas film. The divide is easily explained. It’s all down to one very special performance.

I’d happily wager that there isn’t a Christmas movie around which lives and dies on its lead performance as absolutely as Elf. That isn’t to say Jimmy Stewart or Billy Bob Thornton aren’t the magical ingredients in It’s A Wonderful Life or Bad Santa, but that both of those films would have survived (albeit in worse shape), with different actors in the main roles.

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Imagine Elf though, with Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey instead of Will Ferrell in those yellow tights. It wouldn’t just be a different film, it’d fall to pieces. While a comic like Steve Carrell may have been able to pull off the character’s toddler-like glee and ADHD delivery, he’d have fallen short when it came to the film’s running sight gag, that of a 6ft 3” hulk of a man dressed in tights, pointy hat and curly shoes.

You don’t even have to imagine a Ferrell-less Elf in fact. 2010’s Elf Broadway musical replaced the cast and wedged in a bunch of jazz hands and shimmying dance numbers. The end result, according to most theatre critics, was not pretty.

Ferrell’s cumbersome size, unblinking enthusiasm, and idiot joy as Buddy the elf is both unmatchable and crucial to the film’s success. If, like Mark Kermode, your cockles aren’t warmed by his performance, you’re unlikely to find anything else in Elf to change your mind. It’s Ferrell’s film through and through, and for those of us whose cockles are kept well and truly toasty by his unbridled cheer and stupid hat, what a film it is.

Elf achieved the seemingly unachievable in 2003 by leapfrogging decades-old favourites to the top of festive film lists and becoming a Christmas perennial. A total lifetime gross of over $220 million on a production budget of $33 million is the kind of maths Hollywood producers like to see, and guaranteed to start the sequel bell ringing.

Ring the sequel bell did, but Will Ferrell did the honourable thing by turning down the second instalment (and $29 million if reports are to be believed). His reason? The best any comedian could give: the joke just wouldn’t be funny the second time around. God bless you Mr Ferrell, God bless us every one.

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Ferrell’s Saturday Night Live pedigree can’t have hurt in attracting the rest of Elf’s very decent cast either. Stand-up legend Bob Newhart, comedy veteran Ed Asner, Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen and James “Sonny Corleone” Caan all signed on for a risky venture which could easily have made for an embarrassing entry on their IMDb listings. Thankfully, embarrassment was averted and the picture they made has found a place in the hearts of many. It’s to the immense credit of director Jon Favreau that he balances his ensemble quite so skillfully, too.

Narrated by Newhart in the guise of Papa Elf, the film tells the story of a human baby accidentally transported from the orphanage to the North Pole one Christmas Eve. Adopted by a tinker and raised as an elf, Buddy lives out his first three decades in ignorant bliss of his human provenance, until his hulking size and lack of Santa’s workshop skills eventually reveal his true identity.

Cue a hero’s journey for Buddy to find his real father all the way through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, and past the sea of twirly swirly gum drops. The sticking point? Buddy’s father’s on the naughty list.

James Caan plays Walter Hobbs, Buddy’s baby boomer father who until now has been unaware of the existence of his 30-year-old son by a former, now-deceased girlfriend. A children’s publisher who’s lost sight of what’s important in life, Walter is the archetypal bad Christmas dad: selfish, work-obsessed and in dire need of a festive epiphany.

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A Christmas epiphany is just what he receives, along with a whole bunch of headaches caused by the well-meaning shenanigans of his first-born. Buddy envisages a father-son relationship based on eating cookie dough, going ice-skating, and holding hands, but winds up enraging his emotionally unavailable dad with his cheery optimism.

Buddy’s instant love for the dad who rejects him is strangely affecting, as is his broken-heartedness when chastised. After jeopardising one of Walter’s business deals, Buddy runs away from his new family, leading to Elf’s darkest moment. In what looks like the briefest nod to It’s A Wonderful Life, Buddy stands troubled on a New York bridge, when who should cross the Manhattan skyline, but Father Christmas in his sleigh.

The ensuing chase scene is probably the film’s weakest point, as ring wraith-style mounted rangers pursue Santa through Central Park for no discernible reason. The resolution – that Santa’s sleigh can be powered by Christmas spirit if only we all believe in him – tips the balance into sappiness, but given the genre, we’ll give that a pass.

It’s not just his father’s life into which Buddy injects Christmas cheer, but also that of cynical toy shop worker, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Buddy’s burgeoning romance with Jovie is side-lined but sweetly handled by the film. The scene in which the pair duet on Baby It’s Cold Outside has to be one of the most endearing strange-man-walks-in-on-girl-showering moments in the whole of cinema.

Jovie and Buddy’s relationship does pose one question though: by the time we get to the coda, the couple have an infant daughter, though quite how such a sexless couple arrived at parenthood is left mercifully to our imaginations (I like to think that baby was built in Santa’s workshop).

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Buddy reminds Jovie and the rest of us to channel our youthful excitement and optimism. Through his eyes, a crappy cup of coffee is the best cup of coffee in the world. His guileless sociability makes people happy, and he serves as a reminder to us all there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. You’d have to be a cotton-headed ninny muggins not to see the charm in that.

Yes, Elf has a slight story and a premise most of us have seen played out many a time in Big, or Coming To America, or Mork & Mindy. It’s full of silly gags, slapstick, shameless product placement, and unabashed sentimentalism. Unsophisticated it may be, but funny and sweet? Yes and yes. It’s 90 minutes or so of jumping on the bed, tongue-swelling up joy, and since 2003, Christmas hasn’t really started in my house until we’ve watched it.

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