There’s a sense of exuberance in Elf that makes it the best holiday movie of the past twenty years. On the surface, Elf may look as superficial as some other Christmas movies like, say, How The Grinch Stole Christmas but it’s actually much more. It’s a cheerful movie that’s not only very funny but also has its heart in the right place. It also features one of Will Ferrell’s best roles.
Elf is the story of an orphan baby who accidently enters Santa’s (Ed Asner) bag on Christmas Eve and is sent up to the North Pole. When he is discovered, Santa decides it’s best for the boy to stay in his workshop and Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) decides to adopt him, where he is soon named Buddy (Ferrell plays him as an adult) by the elves. Buddy is raised as an elf and believes he is one, though he’s about four feet taller than everyone else. As Buddy grows older, he discovers he is not an elf but the son of a publisher named Walter Hobbs (James Caan) and Susan Wells, who put Buddy up for adoption and never told Walter they had a son (she dies beforehand). Buddy then decides to go to New York City to find his father.
When Buddy arrives, he’s easily out of place and not just because he continues to wear his elf clothes. He meets his father, who now has a wife (Mary Steenburgen) and a son (Daniel Tay), who is shocked and horrified to discover that Buddy’s here and that he thinks he’s an elf. Meanwhile, Buddy develops a romance with a department store girl played by Zooey Deschanel. Buddy tries to get his new family into Christmas cheer while Walter attempts to deal with him and also make a pitch for a new children’s book he’s been working on.
Much of the jokes of Elf revolve around Buddy’s reactions to New York. When he arrives, he immediately starts picking gum from the street, and soon gets into a fight with a department store Santa and starts working in a mailroom. Buddy is a man-child, a role that Will Ferrell plays best and he’s excellent here. I’m a fan of Ferrell and he restored my faith in Saturday Night Live in the late 90s. As Buddy, he does his usual goofy characters but also gives an emotional performance. Buddy really cares for his father, and the movie dives into a more complex level than one would expect, a reason why Elf is such a delightful film.
Now Elf isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s certainly one that’s always fun to watch. I see it about once a year, and it’s as funny each time. I wish more studios would attempt to create a holiday film as likable as Elf without making it too mean-spirited or sloppy like most films that come out today. Elf succeeds and rises up from these films with its cheer.