Retro Control: ‘Elf’
A Modern day Christmas classic that teaches us it's okay to be different
What’s Retro Control? Well, it’s a sentimental look at cinema of the past and its influence today. A nostalgia trip that dives deep into a film genre and identity. We need to explore the past in order to understand our future.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of Christmas classics, I know exactly what movies would be etched in stone. Obviously, the cornerstone would be It’s A Wonderful Life (1946); a film that many consider to be one of the greatest films ever made besides being a Christmas staple. Next to it would be Miracle on 34th Street (1947); there’s a reason why it’s shown after every Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The same goes for A Christmas Story (1983), which has been played all day Christmas day on TBS since 1997.
Finally, the last and final place would go to Elf (2003).
Surprising to some I’d imagine, but Elf is already a Christmas classic in my mind and according to my generation. So, let me explain as to why Elf is a Christmas classic.
Released 15 years ago, Elf was directed by Jon Favreau and stars Will Ferrell as the titular Buddy who thinks he is an elf. The story is simple: an orphan child is mistakenly brought to the North Pole in Santa’s sleigh. Instead of returning the boy to the orphanage, an elf adopts the child as his own. Many years later, after the child has grown into adulthood, he discovers he is adopted and sets off to find his birth parents. Making the harrowing journey to New York City, the elf reconnects and changes the heart of his Scrooge-like father, brings Christmas spirit and cheer to his new family, and learns a few things about being human.
Pretty basic story for what appeared to be another Hollywood Christmas “cash in.” In fact, the early 2000s were prime time for holiday projects as we got more of them than any other era (17 films between 2000-2005, and six films released in 2006 alone). We got a live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (more on that later this week), as well as various Tim Allen Christmas projects, including The Santa Clause sequels and Christmas with the Kranks.
Well…and sorry for getting kind of dark…to be honest it had to do with September 11th. There was a push for family-friendly, joyful content to bring people out of their homes after the attacks, and these movies did the job. Furthermore, many people were returning to religion, and Christmas became a larger holiday than ever before.
So, this is the history that surrounded Elf‘s reputation: another half-assed Christmas movie. Furthermore, Will Ferrell was not pegged as a leading man and Jon Favreau was still a new director—most didn’t know what to expect. This led to many of people to not be excited about the film, including Rodger Ebert who began his Elf review stating:
If I were to tell you “Elf” stars Will Ferrell as a human named Buddy who thinks he is an elf and Ed Asner as Santa Claus, would you feel an urgent desire to see this film? Neither did I. I thought it would be clunky, stupid and obvious, like “The Santa Clause 2” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It would have grotesque special effects and lumber about in the wreckage of holiday cheer…
However, despite all of this, Elf was a success! Ebert continues:
That’s what I thought it would be. It took me about 10 seconds of seeing Will Ferrell in the elf costume to realize how very wrong I was. This is one of those rare Christmas comedies that has a heart, a brain and a wicked sense of humor, and it charms the socks right off the mantelpiece.
Elf absolutely has endured and needs to be considered one of the greatest Christmas classics of all time. First off, Ferrell is the perfect man-child. He’s crafted a character in Elf, the so-called “lovable dunce,” that he has brought to so many other roles, including in Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers. Elf is where Ferrell became a star and where his outlandish style of comedy was born.
Favreau has also become one of the greatest visionary directors of our generation. After making Elf, Favreau went on to helm Iron Man and began the Marvel cinematic universe. He also directed a live-action version of The Jungle Book for Disney, and is gearing up for the live-action of The Lion King.
There is practically no CGI in Elf, which makes it timeless. According to John Favreau in Rolling Stone:
I like the techniques and technologies used when I was growing up. I like motion-control, models, matte paintings. It feels timeless. And stop-motion is my favorite. There were a lot of challenges to do that stuff in stop-motion. I had to fight very hard not to do that stuff in CGI. There’s no CGI in there, except for some snowing.
Elf‘s moral is that it’s okay to be different. The movie brings something new to the table, and Buddy stands out in a world in which he literally doesn’t fit in. Nonetheless, instead of being mocked for his differences, he is praised for his uniqueness. For example, Buddy is not a good toymaker, but he can help the elves in Santa’s workshop in other ways, including changing the smoke detector batteries. This “fish out of water” story doesn’t change Buddy in the long run. He still has the same joyful elf sensibilities he had at the beginning of the film as he does at the end. His faith and cheer is not tainted by the outside world.
Buddy also gets the girl in the end because he is unlike any other man. According to Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), Buddy is caring, kind, and innocent. During the scene where Jovie is taking a shower at Gimbels, Buddy joins her in song. He is attracted to the music, her voice first and foremost, not her body. In fact, at the end of the scene Buddy covers his eyes and injures himself in retreat in order to not peek at her. Jovie even has to make the first move during the ice skating scene at Rockefeller Center in order to have Buddy kiss her on the lips.
The film is also one of the most quotable films of our generation. It’s tagline, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” is the perfect summary of what the movie is about: spreading joy. Who could forget Buddy’s proclamation of love: “I love you, I love you, I love you!!!”
Elf is the perfect Christmas movie because it blends modern sensibilities with old-fashioned sentiment. The movie’s backdrop is Christmas, but the film overall teaches the joy of spreading cheer. Buddy’s integrity, innocence, and spirit inspires us to all remember that the holidays are not about gifts, but they are about making those around us happier—which is something that I plan to keep in mind as we begin this holiday season.