The 21st century hasn't been great when it comes to creating holiday classics, although it's certainly not for lack of trying. The holiday season is, in fact, overflowing every year with new movies that drape themselves in snow, Santa and sentiment in order to create a niche of warmth with viewers. Sometimes it works; often it falls flat. What mostly happens is that we wait and see. Holiday classics are borne of repetition and familiarity. You can't manufacture a tradition of watching something every December; that just has to happen on its own. Which is why it's good to tip our green felt hats to 2003's Elf, which has managed to become a genuine holiday phenomenon and a Christmas classic in less than 20 years.
Directed by Jon Favreau (in his first major studio film as a director, five years before he made Iron Man) and starring Will Ferrell at maybe his mainstream comedic peak (Anchorman was released earlier the same year), Elf tells the story of Buddy, a human who was raised among the elves of the North Pole. Having always been different from his fellow elves, Buddy discovers his human origins and travels to New York City to find his dad (James Caan), although Santa (Ed Asner) cautions the simple and good-hearted Buddy that his dad is on the naughty list. The rest of the movie is a fish-out-of-water story about Buddy's oversized Christmas cheer clashing with the cotton-headed ninnymugginses of the real world.
As we've previously done with such holiday classics as Home Alone, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, we're taking some lessons from the story of Elf and trying to apply them to our own lives this Christmas season.
Elf is narrated by Buddy's adopted elf dad, played by comedy legend Bob Newhart. Papa Elf explains how Buddy was a baby in an orphanage who crawled into Santa's toy sack one Christmas Eve and emerged back at the North Pole. With Santa's blessing, the elves raised him as one of their own, and even though Buddy grew like a human — he was soon much bigger than his dad or his co-workers at the workshop — he developed the customs, enthusiasm, and innocent demeanor of the elves.
In the first part of the movie, nature seems to be an insurmountable obstacle for Buddy. He's too big to comfortably sit on Papa Elf's lap, he can't make toys at the superhuman rate that the "other" elves can. The others try to assure him that everybody has different talents, but by the time he finds out he's a human, he's feeling really down on himself about being an elf.
But when Buddy goes to New York City, it's immediately apparent how much his upbringing among the elves has formed the man he is today. Part of that is simply that he's unfamiliar with human customs. (Despite Santa's explicit warnings, Buddy can't help himself from eating gum that's stuck on railings because it looks like candy.) But mostly, it's that Buddy's temperament is completely at odds with the jaded people he meets. This is the whole point of the movie, of course, and it's not a rare one in holiday-themed entertainment. The premise is that the world, with all its bustle and deadlines and financial imperatives and coarseness, keeps most people from enjoying something as pure and joyful as the holidays, and it takes a uniquely pure soul to cut through that and get back to values like generosity and love. It's been there since Dickens, if not before.
By the end of the movie, what's kind of cool is that Buddy hasn't changed much. He's still enjoying his syrup-forward diet and Christmas cheer. He fits in better with his family and his new girlfriend Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) because he's helped them become more like him (and not the other way around)..
Buddy's biggest problem when he gets to the city isn't that he doesn't understand taxicabs or food groups that don't include candy canes. It's that he's really quite terrible when it comes to reading social cues. Perhaps the elves were such dedicated workers and/or so naturally cheerful that they didn't need to develop the finer points of detecting when someone you're talking to clearly wants you to stop, but Buddy absolutely never developed that skill. Over and over again, whether it's with his dad at the office, or his boss at the department store (Faison Love), or most disastrously with Peter Dinklage as the curmudgeonly children's book author.
It's kind of a sketchy scene, given that it's asking for big laughs for jokes made at a little person's expense, but within the world of the movie, the biggest problem is that Buddy just will not pick up on the fact that Dinklage's character is getting increasingly furious. One supposes "furious" is not an emotion one sees at the North Pole, where even the narwhals are friendly. This earns Buddy what can only be described as a well-deserved pummelling, not just for his ignorance, but for not knowing when to cool it.
So many little things about this movie reveal the simmering deception at work in New York City on a near-constant basis. Santa tries to warn Buddy about it before he even leaves the North Pole, cautioning that Buddy may end up getting confused by all the signs touting the "Original" Ray's Pizza. The real one, he says, is on 11th Street, but that is also a lie! The real one was on Prince Street! (Both have closed in the years since Elf was released.) When Buddy gets to New York, he sees a sign at a diner touting the World's Greatest Cup of Coffee. Buddy, unfamiliar with the exaggerations of marketing, takes this at face value and bursts inside to congratulate the proprietors. We learn later from Jovie that the coffee is in fact pretty mediocre.
Of course, Buddy helps reveal the throne of lies that department store Santas sit upon as he's scandalized that his good friend Santa would have so many imposters trying to pass themselves off as him in front of the world's children.
But even that throne of lies sits atop its own throne of lies. The department store Buddy goes to work at is Gimbels, whose flagship store once sat in New York City in proximity to its greatest rival, Macy's. (Gimbels even had their own rival Thanksgiving Day parade.) But Gimbels also closed in 1986. The building used to film the exteriors for Gimbels was the Textile Building on 5th Avenue, and the interiors were filmed at — of all indigities — the Herald Square Macy's.
Buddy's dad works as a children's book publisher, all the better to communicate what a Grinch-y figure he is when he chooses to cut corners and omit the last two pages of their new release because what do children know or care about how books end? Elf was most likely not trying to make a big sweeping statement about the publishing industry in the 21st century, but if it was, it did a pretty great job of revealing the business of publishing children's books to be a cold and calculating world full of cynical authors, callous publishers, and monstrous executives. Perhaps let Santa and his elves do all the book publishing from here on out?
One of the sweetest subplots of Elf is how Jovie comes around to Buddy's view of the Christmas season. When it starts out, she's a disaffected department store employee whose proximity to the more gear-grinding parts of the Christmas season — the hectic commerce, the crowds of screaming children — has made her pretty unenthused about the whole thing. She also has a gorgeous singing voice, which Buddy eavesdrops on while she's in the shower (not eavesdropping on people in the shower is another social cue Buddy needs to pick up on).
The story behind the story, of course, is that Zooey Deschanel is, in fact, a singer, and the movie really wanted to capitalize on it. Casting her as a girl with a great voice who's too shy to sing sets the movie up for a great third-act moment when she leads New York City in a "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" singalong, even if the end result does feel a little like Deschanel playing the "Don't Make Me Sing" Kristen Wiig sketch from Saturday Night Live.
Elf airs throughout the season on Starz and is available for streaming on HBO Max.
Visit our Holiday Viewing Guide for a complete listing of where to watch classic holiday specials and movies throughout the month of December.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.