Anybody who doesn’t feel warm, snuggly, and full of glitter and sparkle after watching Jon Favreau’s classic would have to be a complete and utter Grinch
SANTALAND FABLE FEELS BANG UP TO DATE
It amounts to an age-old Christmas fable when a seasonal film opens with pages turning in a book filled with Christmassy illustrations. Elf (2003) sets the scene by then flicking back to a time in the Sixties when a nun cradled a baby in a lonely ward all but lit by a large Christmas tree. ‘Maybe by next Christmas, you’ll have a home,’ she tells the baby as she places the infant into a cot. ‘Merry Christmas, my angel.’ And all would have presumably been well had not Santa arrived at midnight, dropped his sack on the floor – and the still-awake baby seeing a teddy inside, climbed out of the cot and crawled into the sack.
Any wonder that the next voice the babe hears is Santa’s ‘What in the name of Sam Hill is that?!; Cue ‘Buddy the Elf’ being adopted into the toymaking community at the North Pole even while his (say, it quietly) human size and attributes make him out of synch with everyone else. Only when he is told years later that he comes ‘from a magical land called New York City’ does he determine to find his real Dad and learn more of who he really is.
Christmas Joy Trumps Stressed-Out Sourness
You’d have to be a cotton-headed ninny muggins not to rate Jon Favreau’s Elf as one of the most amusing and warmhearted traditional Hollywood Christmas movies of the Twenty First Century. Favreau, previously best known for starring in Swingers (1966), and as Monica’s love interest in Series 3 of Friends has crafted a sparkly fish-out-of-water tale enjoyed by children and adults alike year after year.
It is helped that Elf has such a tremendous cast playing it straight as Will Ferrell’s Buddy’s foils. It allows free rein for Ferrell’s over-enthusiastic Christmas joy while the laughs come from such an up mood crashing bang into the seasonal stressed-out sourness especially seen in James Caan’s Walter. For many people, Caan’s movie legacy will be both the hotheaded doomed youngest brother, Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972), and his gruff book publisher and Buddy’s real father in Elf. (So gruff in fact that he is on Santa’s Naughty List: ‘Some people just lose sight of what’s important in life.’
Won Over By Silliness And Delight
There’s a blink of spiritual truth too when an overexcited Buddy remarks, ‘Christmas Day is the best day in the whole wide world.’ When Buddy falls for Zooey Deschanel’s just-right Jovie, and joins her in an impromptu duet of ‘Baby, It’s Cold outside’ as she takes a shower in the staff bathroom, he wins her over even as she’s shocked by his presence.
The point about Buddy is that he wins people over. A snowball fight with his nonplussed young half-brother, Michael (Daniel Tay) in Central Park is reminiscent of the ones in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Jack Frost (1998) and transforms the boy’s perception of the family weirdo. Yet while Buddy fantasises about his supposedly wonderful Dad, to the neglected Michael, Walter is ‘the worst Dad in the whole wide world’.
Firm Ground Beneath The Fluffy White Snow
Elf is a finely tuned delight that has enough heft and adult humour as much as complete silliness for all ages to enjoy. It is about dysfunctional families and finding yourself and your place within them. It recognises what are the important things in life. It is touching too – as when Jovie, discovering Buddy is fascinated by the large decorated trees in the various department store windows as they wander New York’s streets on their evening date, takes him to the Rockefeller Centre to see the grand tree beside the skating rink to really impress him.
There is existential darkness as well, notably when Buddy ends up on the bridge in Central Park like It’s A Wonderful Life’s George Bailey in Bedford Falls. Rather than wishing he had never lived at all, Buddy is so out of kilter both with life at the North Pole and in modern New York that he despairs, ‘I don’t belong anywhere.’ He is trapped between two worlds, and he has to learn that there is a place and value to him in both, even though he naturally fits neither.
Don’t Worry, Be Christmas Happy
It is Buddy after all, who taught a shy Jovie that ’The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.‘ Jovie/Zooey has a wonderful voice (as fans of Deschanel’s real-live duo, She & Him will attest), but it is Buddy who gave her the courage to begin ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ and start the ball rolling.
For Christmas cheer is the oil that fuels Santa’s sleigh and there just ain’t enough of that around these days. By the time the spontaneous singing crowd on the edge of Central Park gets picked up by the local television news so that the whole city is on joyful song, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse-style Central Park Rangers are being outclassed by the now roaring sleigh.
Jon Favreau and his team wanted to make an old-fashioned Christmas movie and they have succeeded in spades.