The primary rule of the Elves’ Code is to approach each day with the same enthusiasm as Christmas. This is evident in Will Ferrell’s comedic style, where he consistently stands out at 6ft 3in, and exudes a lively energy that sets the tone for his scenes. He is like a display in a Bergdorf Goodman window, or the neighbor who goes all out with holiday decorations to the point of causing traffic in the neighborhood. No matter how hard he may try, he cannot blend into the background – but he never attempts to, which is admirable.
It would be inaccurate to say that he was destined to play Buddy, the lively orphan raised in Santa’s workshop in the film Elf, because he was also the only suitable choice for the roles of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman and Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. However, his casting, along with the excellent casting of the entire film, has transformed this enjoyable comedy into a nearly timeless holiday classic 20 years later. He approaches each scene with enthusiasm, eagerly seizing every opportunity for comedy while bringing the other characters along with his contagious energy. When a group of New Yorkers gather to sing “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” on Christmas Eve, it’s as if they are surrendering to his comedic prowess.
In the movie, Bob Newhart plays Buddy’s adoptive father and serves as the narrator. He greets the audience in a casual manner, saying “hello” and acknowledging that they are likely here to hear a story. As a baby, Buddy was accidentally taken to the North Pole in Santa’s bag. This makes him the first human to ever visit Santa’s workshop, which is similar to the situation in Monsters, Inc. However, unlike the monsters, the North Pole is welcoming to Buddy. Despite this, he struggles to fit in due to his large size and lack of skill as a toymaker. Although he can produce a high volume of toys, he is still behind the speed of an actual elf by 915 Etch A Sketches.
Buddy inevitably begins to question his origins and discovers that his only living parent, Walter Hobbs, is a grumpy publisher of children’s books who works in the Empire State Building. Santa warns Buddy that Walter is on the “naughty list”, but Buddy is determined to make the journey to New York City, traveling through an ice floe, a forest of Candy Canes, and the Lincoln Tunnel. Despite some distractions along the way, Buddy finally arrives in New York and goes straight to a department store where he is mistaken for a new employee. There, he meets Jovie, a dispirited co-worker with a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. Played by Zooey Deschanel, Jovie’s whimsy cannot be outdone even by Buddy’s unrelenting joy as an oversized elf.
The plot of Elf follows a formulaic structure, similar to the predictable sugar cookies left out for Santa on Christmas Eve. Walter, the main character, is portrayed as a miserly Scrooge who prioritizes his work over his family. He shows little concern for pleasing children, even going so far as to publish a subpar book with missing pages. As the naive Buddy enters the fast-paced and unfriendly city, his character is reminiscent of Daryl Hannah’s mermaid in Splash, who also learns about humanity while working in a department store. It’s not surprising that the city seems to bend to Buddy’s desires, as the Christmas spirit must prevail and he is the embodiment of it.
However, the true standout of Elf is not just the impressive performances, such as Mary Steenburgen’s cheerful portrayal of the mother from another Will Ferrell comedy, Step Brothers, perfectly complementing James Caan’s grumpy character. The film truly shines in its intricate details. It offers a satisfactory explanation for how so many gifts are produced and delivered each year, showcasing hardworking elves pouring sand into Etch A Sketches and testing Jack-in-the-Boxes for a sleigh that combines reindeer-power with horsepower. Director Jon Favreau pays homage to Rankin-Bass with endearing animated characters like a snowman and other inhabitants of the North Pole. His depiction of New York is raw and rough, yet endearing. Just like Caan’s character, the city exudes a tough exterior that masks its tender heart.
Some of the most humorous running jokes revolve around Buddy’s position between two worlds – not quite fully human, yet not quite an elf. While he may struggle to keep up with his workload in Santa’s workshop, he has a talent for creating replicas of famous New York landmarks with Lego bricks and crafting a sturdy rocking horse out of the family’s entertainment center. His hosts are initially shocked when he requests maple syrup on pasta night, but the next morning, he surprises them by packing spaghetti for their lunches, thinking it may be something they would enjoy. In a sense, Buddy’s lack of understanding is not entirely uncommon among humans – while it may be comical that he takes Jovie to a cafe boasting “the world’s greatest coffee” on their date, is it any different from native New Yorker Travis Bickle taking a date to an XXX-rated movie in Taxi Driver?
Ferrell had just one more year left as a regular on Saturday Night Live when he starred in Elf, a film that perfectly showcased his skills as a versatile performer. He has a knack for adapting to any situation and making it his own, such as when his character Buddy turns a dull mailroom into a lively party or interrupts a meeting with an irritable author (Peter Dinklage) whom he mistakes for another elf. Despite playing a simple-minded character, Buddy’s determination is what drives the entire movie: the city-dwellers can either continue to be unhappy or give in to the relentless Christmas spirit he keeps pushing on them.
The selection of traditional holiday films is lacking. If you search for “Christmas movies” on Google, the majority of enduring ones are only average, using common methods of eliciting expected emotions through physical comedy or overly sentimental scenes, sometimes both at once. Elf stands out in this aspect, but after 20 years, it has become just as popular as any other film from its era. No one puts in more effort than Ferrell to maintain a positive atmosphere – and this is true throughout the year, not just during the holiday season.