I didn’t grow up watching Elf. I had to make to do the eternally grainy and unsettling Santa Claus: The Movie and animations based on Raymond Briggs classics. By the time Elf was released, I was sixteen, but I think that was as good an age as any. After all, as my first ever real-life job, I worked in a popular garden centre as an elf for two Christmases and the film gave me an inner sense of hope; I kept hoping Will Ferrell would rescue me. He did not.
Written by David Berenbaum and directed by Jon Favreau, Elf is a classic because it endures multiple watches and has a whole lot of heart. It’s genuinely a film for all the family. Ferrell’s innocence is charming to children and adults alike, and isn’t spoiled by too many knowing winks to the adult audience beyond Buddy accidentally buying sexy lingerie for his father. How easy would it have been to have, for example, included an irksome scene where Jovie and Buddy attempt to consummate their relationship? There are many films made now that would leap at this cringe-worthy opportunity. I’m also supremely grateful that Buddy’s Elf-tights are, in the interests of good taste, much thicker are therefore far less creepily hypnotic than David Bowie’s in Labyrinth.
However you chose to slice it, Will Ferrell is a great actor (more on Stranger than Fiction and, possibly, Winter Passing in future posts) and he plays Buddy the Elf with a level of naiveté that it’s difficult to pull off as endearing and not simply annoying (it’s the same achievement Amy Adams managed in Enchanted about four years later and it’s not easily done). Buddy’s loveable keenness is used to counterpoint the cynicism and sarcasm of just about every other character in the film. Buddy’s father, Walter, played by James Caan, certainly has a Grinch-like exterior which needs to be melted away, but most of the characters are jaded in some way. It is a delight to watch Buddy break through Jovie’s defences and witness them falling in love.
Zooey Deschanel is a gorgeous and understated actress with a singing voice to die for and the scene where Buddy follows her voice into the women’s showers and starts to duet with her is very sweet; particularly as it’s then followed by a great slapstick moment where Buddy jams his hands over his face and runs directly into a wall of lockers.
Will Ferrell’s commentary track makes it clear how much of an ensemble piece Elf was. He talks about every actor who features with appreciation and fondness. Mary Steenburgen plays the part of Emily (Walter’s wife) with the right balance of concern and bemusement, greeting the news that her husband has another son with another woman with nothing but excitement. Emily even stays positive when this new son seems to be certifiably and possibly dangerously insane. John Favreau allows himself a special cameo performance as the paediatrician who performs a paternity test for Walter and proves that he is, in fact, Buddy’s father.
Other notable performances are from Peter Dinklage (now known best as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) as a supposedly gifted children’s writer; the less known half of Tenacious D, Kyle Gass and even Will Ferrell’s brother as the publishing house’s security staff. Die-hard Disney fans will also enjoy seeing Bob Newhart as Buddy’s Papa Elf (that’s the voice of Bernard from The Rescuers to you!) Even child actor Daniel Tay as Buddy’s brand new half brother isn’t annoying; you feel his quiet frustration at his stunted relationship with his dad and it’s interesting seeing the character of Michael take on a big-brother role with the not-particularly-street-wise-or-savvy Buddy.
As well as subtle computerised special effects (they’re good if you don’t notice them), there are wonderfully old fashioned touches to this film, such as the stop-motion animated arctic critters who bid Buddy goodbye when he leaves the North Pole. These are adorably cute and I especially enjoy the moment where the little walrus can longer keep his emotions in check and starts to openly sob as Buddy climbs aboard the block of ice which will carry him away.
It’s also a supremely quotable movie (like a Christmas Anchorman, accept more endearing). Buddy’s angry whisper of “You sit on a throne of lies” to a grotto Santa is my particularly favourite, although I know that, “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favourite colour?” is also a strongly favoured line.
With a subplot focusing on the evils of financial greed of a children’s book publishing house, Elf is also a film with a message. The decorations which Buddy works on tirelessly all night to spruce up the over-commercialised grotto where Jovie works are a nod to how the hand-crafted and homemade give festivities a more personal touch. The film also reminds family patriarchs (or matriarchs, in the spirit of balance) that their stressful jobs are not the be-all-and-end-all of their lives. Walter becomes a Scrooge figure, obsessed with work for monetary gain and stops eating dinner with his family. The scene in Central Park where the crowd is singing “Santa Claus is Coming to town” really brings home the take-home message that making just a small effort to take part in a group activity and have a little faith in the Christmas spirit can make a world of difference. The shot where Walter joins in the group sing-song and raises his arms and his voice to the sky as Santa’s sleigh soars overhead is totally awesome. Elf is excellent. It even keeps the kids quiet on the last day of term.