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Blogvent Day 5 – Elf (2003,USA)


Director: Jon Favreau       Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen

I’m not big on tradition, in fact I’d go so far as to say I strongly dislike it, the notion of performing certain tasks or rituals simply because they’ve always been done a certain way not making a hell of a lot of sense to me. What’s wrong with trying new things? Of course, in at least one respect I am a total hypocrite, that being the relatively recently established tradition in our house of putting up the Christmas decorations whilst watching what could possibly be the definitive modern Christmas classic, Elf.

On paper I should hate Elf. The concept of a saccharine, cheesy, christmas film starring the extremely variable Will Ferrell rings alarm bells with me but somehow, against the odds, it works perfectly. The plot follows Buddy (Ferrell), a human adopted by Santa’s elves when he stows away for the return trip to the North Pole when the big man has finished his rounds for christmas. As he grows up it becomes obvious that he is not like the other Elves and so he travels to New York to find his real father, Walter,  played by none other than James Caan. With hilarious results.

Ferrell plays it like a hyperactive child, a constant stream of questions and madness, all delivered with a wide eyed naivete that turns the simplest of acts into pure comedy genius. There are plenty of laughs to be had. Buddy’s fish out of water antics in New York are probably among the best jokes in the film, the highlight being his reaction to a department store Santa when he realises he is an imposter.

But there is more to it than hijinks and laughter, there are more serious messages in there too. Buddy struggles to fit in, biologically too different from the elves to truly be one of them, too psychically entrenched in elf culture to easily fit in with humans. His alienation is not immediately obvious through the fog of his incessant elfishness but he has his moments of genuine vulnerability. The fact he takes everything literally, unaware of sarcasm, double meanings and dishonesty, shows the people around him to be less than pleasant. His blind acceptance leads to misery for those who are less than clear in their intentions. A fine lesson to learn.

As with almost all christmas films, the notion of the true spirit of christmas is pivotal. Now while the true meaning of christmas is open to debate (it isn’t really, but that’s a discussion for another day) Elf defines it largely as a belief in Santa Claus coupled with being with family and friends. While I’m willing to turn a blind eye to the Santa situation, the togetherness and love for others message is one that is consistently repeated throughout all classic christmas films and I would say is generally accepted as one of the key elements of the festive season. It is present here in spades with Walter beginning the tale as a Scrooge-esque character, putting more time into his job (a cynical, jaded publisher of childrens books) rather than his family, neglecting his younger son and generally being mean. Thanks largely to Buddy, he finds his way again by the end, flying in the face of his corporate employers and sacrificing everything he used to hold dear for the sake of his family. It’s genuinely heart warming.

What is especially nice is the way it avoids emphasising the horrendous commerciality of christmas. The elves make relatively simple toys (no ipods or xboxes  for example) and when Santa consults his lists each child is only down for receiving a single gift, presumably the one thing they want the most. Walter’s decision to leave an important board meeting for the sake of Buddy, jeopardising his career and the commercial benefits that come with it for the sake of his son. A son who (through no fault of his own) had done nothing but cause him trouble up until that point. It’s a beautiful moment.

Is it predictable? Yes. Is this a bad thing? No. Sure, you can see where it’s going from the outset but that is very much part of the film’s joy. The madcap humour may make it seem silly and throwaway but at its heart lies an important reminder about what’s really important in life, love and understanding for our fellow beings rather than the relentless pursuit of money and material success. I can’t imagine getting the Christmas decorations up to anything else.

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