4th December: Elf

Image: Warner Bros.

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 2003

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: David Berenbaum

Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner

May contain spoilers.

What an absolute joy Elf is. It is the first film in my Christmas Movie Advent Calendar that I have seen before, and still the most consistently enjoyable of the bunch. A warm, sweet and properly funny movie, it is perfectly cast and has the simplicity and fine execution of the best holiday hits.

For the uninitiated, Elf is about a young man named Buddy, who as a baby crawled into Santa’s sack at the orphanage and promptly found himself at the North Pole. Raised from then on by elves, Buddy himself becomes an elf in all but physique (see picture). Upon discovering the truth that he is in fact a human, and has a living father in New York City, Buddy embarks on an adventure to reunite with his dad and discover his true (s)elf.

Buddy is played by mainstream comedy regular Will Ferrell, adored by some, less so by others. I have no especially strong feelings on Ferrell in general, but here he is a delight. His sugared-up enthusiasm and utter belief in Santa and goodness are hilariously out of place on Earth, and it is this culture-clash comedy that drives most of the film. What is so impressive about Elf is the way that this essentially one-joke ‘fish out of water’ premise is kept fresh and invigorated throughout the film.

It is a testament to Ferrell, director Jon Favreau and writer David Berenbaum that the jokes keep coming at a good pace, and nearly all land. Take one moment, for example, when Buddy listens to department store elf Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) singing angelically in the work showers. The obvious joke here is to have the clueless Buddy burst in on her naked, much to both their embarrassment. Instead Buddy just sits outside, and when Jovie sees him she yells at him to simultaneously ‘not look and get out’. Poor Buddy covers his eyes, screams and runs straight into a wall. It’s a better, funnier joke and plays to Ferrell’s strengths as a physical comedian.

It’s in moments like this that you can see Favreau and Berenbaum utilising their star perfectly. Simple slapstick jokes are heavily dependent on the performer, but get the right actor and you have gold. Just look at how whiny, often objectionable, Ross became the funniest character on Friends when the writers realised David Schwimmer’s huge talent for physical comedy, and leant into this more and more.

With Buddy the Elf we don’t just have an instantly likeable and funny protagonist, but a slightly unconventional one. In most stories, it is the lead character who has the big dramatic arc, who goes on the emotional and thematic journey whilst the supporting characters facilitate that. Here that doesn’t really happen, with Buddy the same naively giddy character from start to finish. Instead, the emotional arc of the film is given to his human dad. This is a fairly simple Scrooge-like tale of a greedy rich man who finds his humanity, but it’s charmingly delivered and James Can is great as the irascible patriarch.

You’ve probably gathered that I’m a big Elf fan, but I am going to dampen the Christmas spirit with one big complaint. The romance plot-line between Buddy and Jovie is not good. It’s borderline lazy storytelling and completely unnecessary. The only thing that saves it is how charismatic Deschanel is and Jovie’s contribution to the big sing-song at the end. Other than that, she is frustratingly superfluous.

If you want another major character in the film, write them properly and give them something to do. And if you want a romance, make it a priority. Love is precious and vital in life and when done well on screen it is the most glorious thing in the world. So please, filmmakers, stop trivialising love stories by just throwing characters together as a default storytelling mechanism.

It is also worth noting that Buddy is, in essence, a child. He behaves and thinks like a child and in elf years he is a child. I’m not suggesting that Elf be cancelled because it promotes pedophilia or anything that outlandish, but I think this fact illustrates how unnecessary and ill-fitting a romance is in this film.

The love in Elf is between a father and a son, and between cynical people and their Christmas spirit. That’s all the film needs, because it’s great as it is.

Andrew Young

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