Christian’s Christmas: Elf (2003)

By Christian DiMartino

It had been 10 years since I’d seen Jon Favreau’s Elf. I’m sure some people watch it every winter, and that’s great. For me, it was a movie I’d always liked, but… my sophomore year of high school, I was forced to watch it in three different classrooms. And that did it for me. I was burnt out, the fuse had been blown. I truly didn’t want to return to it for a long time, and alas, 10 years have now passed.

Aaaaaaaand it’s kind of my loss, because Elf is a pretty funny movie.

That said, I am glad I kept my distance in a way. Because returning to Elf, all of it I remembered pretty vividly, but since it had been so long, the laughs maybe hit me a little harder. This is of course a movie that rests upon the shoulders of Will Ferrell, who had never led a movie up to this point. He really does carry it, and win us over, in a movie that could’ve maybe gone differently in the wrong hands. It’s also The Ferrell Show, but with a secret weapon, in the form of James Caan. Caan isn’t giving the showy performance, obviously, but there is a subtlety in his delivery that kills me. Just the idea of Sonny Corleone having to deal with the big elf man is a killer.

Ferrell is Buddy the Elf, a regular human who crawled into Santa’s (Ed Asner) bag on Christmas night decades ago, and was raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) in the North Pole. Now, there are probably a few questions that can be raised from this setup (did the orphanage ever make an effort to find the missing baby? Did Santa really see this as the right solution?), but also, it’s churlish to try and pick this apart so I’ll stfu. Anyways, Buddy grows up, and he’s exponentially larger than the other elves, but doesn’t notice the difference. That is, until he overhears the elves talking about him. So it’s then that Papa Elf breaks the news, and gives him the lowdown.

Buddy’s dad is a guy named Walter (Caan), an angry little man who publishes kids books in the Empire State Building. Buddy’s birth mother died without telling Walter that he had a son. So Buddy sets off to New York to meet his father and see the real world, dressed in yellow tights and a bright green outfit. One thing I like about The North Pole sequences is that they’re very reminiscent of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another thing that dawned on me is that this is the kid friendly version of The Jerk. Anyways, Buddy travels from The North Pole to New York on foot, and… I have questions. Could nobody have given him a ride? And how exactly did he pull this off? I asked this, and then it dawned on me that right before he left, he had a conversation with a norwal, so we’re not really in the confines of reality.

There is a real childlike sincerity to Ferrell’s performance here that is really winning. Favreau must’ve known that too, and the movie really leans into the strengths of just what Ferrell can do comedically. Much of the humor in Elf revolves around its fish-out-of-water aspects. Buddy gets in a brawl with a mall Santa because he knows he isn’t the real deal; he tries spaghetti and not only becomes obsessed with it, but he mixes it with his usual diet (desserts, basically); he walks by a coffee shop claiming to have “the world’s best cup of coffee,” and congratulates them for it.

It’s all funny because everyone in his orbit lives in reality, and the reality is, they’re miserable, whereas he comes from the land of sugar plums and candy canes. Ferrell really just sells the hell out of it. Caan does too, in a contrasting performance that cracked me up. In a weird way, what he’s doing here kind of reminds me of what he did in Misery. In both cases, he’s sharing the screen with humongous performances, but he’s playing it straight in a sly way that I can’t help but find hilarious. Walter, upon meeting Buddy, sees him as a complete lunatic, and has him escorted out of the building. His wife (Mary Steenburgen) tries to get him to lighten up, because it’s his son, but even she feels he’s delusional, she just goes about it in a polite, Mary Steenburgen way. Also thrown off by Buddy is a toy store employee (Zooey Deschanel), who is also of course thrown off by this wacko but ultimately succumbs to his goofy charms.

You know, I’ve written a lot about the movie Elf today. Suffice to say, this movie is 90 minutes, and I’ll be damned if a lot isn’t covered in that 90 minutes. Favreau’s film moves at a pretty brisk pace, and it has the energy that Ferrell brings to it. Ferrell had done a few movies up to this point, along with Saturday Night Live, but after this one we were really in business. How could you not be? The guy is really giving it his all, while making it look effortless. I’m delighted that I can revisit Elf now. The wound has been healed, and this movie works for me again. It might not be a staple that I HAVE to visit every year, but some Christmas 2024, I’ll be ready to watch it again. Elf is a good movie. Who knew? (Um, a lot of people).


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