People were shocked to learn that I had not watched Elf. During the ensuing conversation, I learned that a number of people consider it a holiday classic. In order to “educate” me, one of these people bought me the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as well as I thoroughly reviewed it. Here you go.
The intensity and frequency of debate as to whether Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003) is a classic are ample clues to its place within the Christmas film canon. This place, though, is not as a classic–actual, potential, or possible–as the debates suggest, but as a meta Christmas film that makes use of this classic canon. Although effective and clever in its use of this past, Elf falls short of classic status due to the superficiality of its engagement with the two primary antagonisms of the best Christmas films: capitalism/commercialism and family disharmony. Therefore, Elf is a useful–but not significant–addition to the Christmas film catalog.
II. Elf as a Meta Christmas Film
Elf’s popularity is as much a result of its thorough and extensive appropriation of Christmas film touchstones as its writing and acting. This appropriation extends beyond the references or allusions that typify most homages to the point that Elf’s entire existence is a derivative take on one of the penultimate Christmas classics, Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Unlike other movies with similarly blatantly copied elements, Elf can rely on its holiday camp, the well-utilized one-dimensionality of Will Ferrell’s acting, and the viewer’s holiday goodwill to make it a well-received and enjoyable work.
At first glance, it is clear Elf aims to make use of successful Christmas movies of the past to secure its place in the present. Buddy, played perfectly by Will Ferrell, is a human who was raised by elves and eventually learns that he belongs “down south” with his father (played by James Caan), Walter. Buddy quickly makes his way to New York City to meet Walter. Although several subplots are teed up (e.g., Buddy needs to help Walter move from the naughty to good list; Buddy-meets-girl story, and the quest to rejuvenate people’s belief in Santa), these serve as window dressing for a comedic-scene-after-comedic-scene continuum that is less of a narrative arc and more of a narrative plateau.
Before exploring these scenes, readers ought to immediately realize that Favreau’s elf-in-a-non-believing world is the obvious partner film to Miracle on 34th Street. In this inarguable classic, Santa moves to New York City and, among other things, convinces a little girl to follow her heart and believe in him. The fact that the elf version of Miracle on 34th Street has not been made is shocking and must have film executives scurrying to find other Christmas characters with similar stories.
In addition to the copy-paste-job of a plot, Elf “shares” more than a few other similarities with Miracle on 34th Street. Buddy, like Miracle on 34th’s Street Santa, finds himself working at a department store’s North Pole children’s area. In what may be the most obvious non-plot connection between the two films, Elf’s department store is shot in and around Macy’s, the featured store in Miracle on 34th Street, and is Gimbles–a now defunct chain that was the primary competitor to Macy’s in Miracle on 34th Street. While working at their respective department stores, both Buddy and Santa deal with dismissive and disbelieving supervisors who are full of middle-management firmness and empty on Christmas spirit. The overlaps are less significant and less obvious as well. For example, alcoholism has a small role in both films: Sadly, Elf portrays alcoholism in a positive, fun, and bonding light during a mail-room scene that goes from droll work to hip-hop part-ay. This contrasts with Miracle on 34th Street’s unequivocal stand against excessive drinking. Elf’s unwillingness to engage in a moral dialogue, despite being about a decidedly moral holiday, is the movie’s Achilles heel, as will be addressed later.
Like any good copier, Elf borrows from many classic Christmas films. The second-most-used touchstone is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Here, as with Miracle on 34th Street, Elf takes the superficial aspects of It’s a Wonderful Life and leaves the dramatic heft for old timers to remember on their own. For example, after being yelled out by Walter, Buddy walks the city depressed and unsure of his place in the world, just as George Bailey does. And just like George, Buddy’s (superficial and non-existential) doubt becomes most explicit and explained on a bridge while looking over the railing into the water. The thoughts of both movies protagonists are pushed to the side by from-the-sky interruptions. George is distracted and ultimately guided to a new state of consciousness by Clarence, the wingless angel played by Henry Travers. Buddy, on the other hand, is distracted by Santa and his sputtering sled. Each interruption starts the corresponding character on a difficult journey to happiness, but Elf’s story of salvation concentrates on improving the relationships that already existed (e.g., Buddy’s love for Jovie; the nuclear family headed by Walter) and hinges not on a serious examination of one’s positive influence on the world, but on Buddy’s/our ability to perform a menial job (e.g., be Santa’s mechanic). In this way, Elf reflects the fact that today’s young adults are thrilled to have something to do (e.g., a job) instead of aspiring to explore and positively affect the larger world (as George was, first with his hopes of travel and later with his obsession of building a better community).
Even less-significant commonalities between the two movies shed light on Elf’s superficiality. For example, both movies feature Auld Lang Syne being sung by a group at the end of a movie on the same type of piano. But Elf never establishes the character of the piano or the individuals singing the song as being relevant to the story’s, and our, fabric.
Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life are only two of the many Christmas films Elf borrows from. Others include Home Alone (scary heaters), A Christmas Story (snowball fight), and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (the many stop-motion characters at the North Pole). And because each of these movies is considered a Christmas classic, it is not surprising that many think Elf is one as well. But many people also find it difficult to write in complete sentences.
A more fruitful way to think about Elf, though, may be as a meta Christmas film. That is, Elf is not churning new ground in an effort to tell a new story or capture Christmas in a different way. Instead, Elf is all about trampling on old ground. The story it does use is a mediocre rehash of an old story, and the sub plots and characters are never developed in a way that reels in the viewer. For example, the primary character and one the audience knows the most about is an innocent, childish adult who has had minimal experiences and remains largely ignorant about the world. This is the deepest Elf goes! This is hardly lost on those involved with the film; in what must be a poorly veiled inside joke, Walter’s duo of vegetable-and-farm-obsessed writers appear to have a limited plot and character repertoire, leading them to ultimately steal story ideas from a more masterful author, Miles Finch (played by Peter Dinklage)—just as Favreau does with classics of Christmas past. If there is little in the way of new and there is little in the way of interest, then a more relevant debate may be whether Elf is the antithesis of classic.
Yet, the movie is undoubtedly fun and enjoyable. And that is because Elf draws from so many classic Christmas films, with which nearly everyone is familiar. At times, Elf seems to be more focused on making references than on telling a story. For example, the only time Buddy is distraught is when the heater turns on at Walter’s condo. This emotion is not foreshadowed, never makes a re-appearance, and is startlingly disconnected from the emotional landscape Buddy presents. Why include it? To check the box next to Home Alone on the list of classic Christmas films to reference?
The reference does cause a laugh, which is the point of Elf. And the movie does so repeatedly, making use of our common Christmas-film experiences. By tying these experiences together, Elf is a meta film–and a good one at that–much like Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) or Robert Zemeckis’ Forest Gump (1994; Forest Gump is derivative of Zelig in much the same way Elf is derivative of Miracle on 34th Street, except that Forest Gump establishes its own ground through an incredible plot and set of characters).
III. A Classic? (aka Fail)
Elf’s lack of character and plot depth is mostly a result of its unwillingness to tackle serious issues. Alcoholism was mentioned briefly earlier as a small example, but three critically important issues simply had a blind plot-eye turned to them: commercialism/capitalism, family, and the role of minorities. Elf’s failure to take on these issues immediately places it in a different category than the films we traditionally think of classics–Christmas or otherwise.
Nearly every Christmas classic takes on the tension between Christmas and commercialism/capitalism. In Miracle on 34th Street, there is the debate about doing what’s right (e.g., sending customers elsewhere) versus making money. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George sacrifices his own welfare for the good of others and takes on Potter’s (Lionel Barrymore) cut-throat business practices (never mind that easy lending policies like George’s are at the root of the current sub-prime mortgage crisis). In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge has a social Darwinist outlook that is later parsed into Wall Street’s “greed is good” line. Due to a long night with three visitors, Scrooge later comes to realize there is more to life than money and the pursuit of property.
Elf, however, lacks this storyline. The closest it comes is when Walter tells his boss “Up yours!” and walks out on an important meeting and his job. And even this moment is never explored or explained. Furthermore, Walter takes up the same position, albeit at his own company, and proceeds to exploit (his son) Buddy. The fact that Walter appears to continue what he was doing before what might be called his moment of non-truth (his two sons leaving him) and without mention to change or improvement (e.g., he remains at a loss for children’s book ideas at the end of the movie, not counting the outright theft of Buddy’s tale). Thus, Elf hardly mentions, let alone takes on, the challenges of maintaining the Christmas spirit in a highly commercialized world.
Another major dramatic topic common to Christmas classics is the family. In short, family bonds are taken for granted in one way or another, but these bonds become recognized and strengthened during the course of the film. For example, Home Alone’s McCallister family have little love for each other, to the point where Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) wishes for them to disappear. During the course of the film, the audience realizes the strength, tenacity, and durability of family bonds, both in the general ways family matters and specific ways in which those ties make our lives better.
Elf has none of this. Yes, Walter does a poor job as a father, a role for which both his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and second son Michael (Daniel Tay) criticize him. But Elf realizes that audiences know this tried plot and does not bother to pursue it; after all, it is a meta movie, not an attempt to explore any issue. And even Walter’s relationship with Michael is reconciled in a humdrum way, as Michael insists, and Walter accedes, that his father actually sing at the end to help power Santa’s sled. Powerful stuff—n’t.
Even if we grasp for some sort of family element to Elf, all that is found is another poor copy from Miracle on 34th Street. In Miracle on 34th Street, Susan (Natalie Wood) is a rather jaded youngster with a formal relationship with her mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara). Elf’s Michael, who is a single child for all intents and purposes, has a similar relationship with his father Walter. Both Doris and Walter see their parental responsibility being to best prepare the children for adulthood, rather than to help the kids enjoy life’s winding paths, ups, and downs. And in both films, the respective North Pole visitor helps the children discover and enjoy their childhood. However, how this discovery is made and how childhood is enjoyed differs. In Miracle on 34th Street, Santa’s elder and respected status inspires Susan to plunge into new worlds of imagination and wonder. But it is Buddy’s immaturity that drags Michael into small-time trite fun activities like snowball fights. It is this same superficial immaturity that drags Elf, and the viewer, from beginning to end.
The role of minorities is not a normal topic for Christmas films, so it is no surprise that Elf fails to address it. But viewers should be surprised at how poorly women and minorities are treated. For example, there are no strong female characters, unlike Doris in Miracle on 34th Street and Mary (Donna Reed) in It’s a Wonderful Life. And the primary female role in Elf is Buddy’s love interest Jovie, who can barely hold a job and only finds herself (or anything to do in the movie) through motherhood and serving Buddy’s adopted father (Papa Elf, played by Bob Newhart) milk.
Even in what is treated as a utopia, the North Pole, women have little importance. None of the managers are women, and a relatively small percentage of elves shown are women. Hell, Ms. Claus is absent from the movie! Elf’s non-treatment of women is not just an oversight but also a glaring gap. Similarly, race’s absence in Elf is more than a mis-focus, it is a disturbing reflection of society’s concern for a “white” Christmas. The only non-white elf is a light-skinned one who works at the table where Etch-a-Sketches are built. Elf’s inability to maturely handle any topic makes it unclear whether the use of a single minority is a
consequence of sub-conscious racism or something intentional. Is the viewer meant to think Santa and manager elves are more tolerant of light-skinned minorities? That “passing” happens in the North Pole, too? Or are we to suppose that this non-white elf has made her way to a privileged status because her mother or grandmother was raped by a (always white and always male) manager elf? Regardless of which, if any, question should be asked, they are all begged.
Further evidence to this maligning of minorities is found when the viewer is taken to the fake North Pole, as put on by Gimbles. In this North Pole, minority elves are common, and their skin color is significantly darker. Unfortunately, their treatment is worse, as they are constantly exploited, scurrying around completing assigned tasks, and never placed in prominent/privileged elf positions. As a result, the viewer is left wondering whether the contrast between the light-skinned elf in the real North Pole and the darker-skinned elves in the fake North Pole is a statement about the role and relationship of house slaves/elves and field slaves/elves and/or a nuanced statement about race and Christmas. Almost certainly, though, it is a non-statement. Elf’s in ability to be serious in any way–serious story? no; serious originality? no; serious ending? no–makes it improbable that could or would tackle race, an unexplored topic in Christmas films. As a result, the audience is left shocked that Elf would be so oblivious and cold to treat women and minorities as it does.
This review has examined Elf in light of the frequent debates about its classic status. Because Elf fails to tackle any major dramatic issue and treats minorities in a most disturbing way, the movie falls well short of classic status. However, its repeated borrowings from actual Christmas classics make it a meta Christmas film like no other. And as a result of its foundation being elements from the best Christmas movies made, it is no surprise that the movie is so enjoyable and worth watching.