The initial principle in the Elves’ Code is to live each day as if it were Christmas, which perfectly encapsulates Will Ferrell’s comedic style. Despite standing at 6 feet and 3 inches, he consistently plays characters that are even larger than life, showcasing a wild enthusiasm that sets the tone for every scene he’s in. He’s like a living display at Bergdorf Goodman. He’s the neighbor who goes all out every year with extravagant holiday decorations, causing traffic to crawl through the neighborhood. He couldn’t blend into the background if he wanted to – and to his great credit, he never attempts to do so.
It would not be entirely accurate to say that he was destined to portray Buddy, a spirited orphan raised in Santa’s workshop in the film Elf. However, he was undoubtedly the perfect choice for roles such as Ron Burgundy in Anchorman and Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. The brilliant casting of the entire film has transformed this enjoyable comedy into a holiday classic even two decades later. He approaches every scene with the same excitement as opening Christmas presents, eagerly seizing every comedic opportunity and infectiously bringing the other characters along for the ride. When a group of New Yorkers come together to sing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” on Christmas Eve, it is as if they are all surrendering to his charm.
The film depicts Bob Newhart as Buddy’s adoptive father and narrator, who greets the audience with a casual “Hello, you’re probably here for the story.” As a young child, Buddy accidentally ends up in Santa’s bag and becomes the first human to visit the North Pole workshop, reminiscent of the situation in Monsters, Inc. However, the North Pole is more welcoming towards Buddy. Despite this, he struggles to fit in due to his large size and lack of skill as a toy maker. While he can produce more in a day than a normal human, he falls short of an actual elf by 915 Etch A Sketches.
Buddy, curious about his background, discovers that his only remaining parent, Walter Hobbs (played by James Caan), is a grumpy publisher of children’s books who works in the iconic Empire State Building. Despite Santa’s warning that Walter is on the “naughty list”, Buddy remains determined to make his way to New York City, traveling through an ice floe, a forest of Candy Canes, and the Lincoln Tunnel, with plenty of adventures along the way. When his father rejects him at first, Buddy heads to a Santa display at a nearby department store in his elf costume, where he is mistaken for a hired hand. It’s there that he meets Jovie, a gloomy co-worker who catches his eye. Played by Zooey Deschanel, Jovie’s whimsical charm even outshines that of Buddy’s unrelenting cheer as an oversized man-elf.
The storyline of Elf is very typical, like the stale iced cookies left out for Santa on Christmas Eve. Walter, the main character, is like Scrooge in that he prioritizes work over his family and doesn’t care about making children happy. He even publishes a lackluster book with missing pages. Buddy, the naive character thrust into the busy and unwelcoming city, is similar to Daryl Hannah’s mermaid in Splash, who also learns about human nature while working in a department store. It’s not surprising that the city bends to Buddy’s wishes because he embodies the Christmas spirit.
In addition to the excellent performances, Elf shines in its attention to detail. Mary Steenburgen, who reprises her role as the cheerful mother from another Will Ferrell comedy, Step Brothers, perfectly complements James Caan’s grumpy character. The film also provides a satisfactory explanation for how so many presents are made and delivered each year, with hardworking elves pouring sand into Etch A Sketches and testing Jack-in-the-Boxes for Santa’s sleigh. Director Jon Favreau pays homage to Rankin-Bass with charming animated characters like the snowman and other inhabitants of the North Pole. In contrast, his depiction of New York City is lovingly gritty. Like Caan’s character, the city may seem intimidating, but it has a soft heart underneath.
Buddy’s comedic moments often stem from his in-between status as neither fully human nor elf. While he may struggle to keep up with Santa’s production demands, he has a talent for using Lego bricks to create miniature versions of New York City or crafting a sturdy rocking horse from the family entertainment center. His hosts are initially taken aback when he requests maple syrup on pasta night, but he surprises them the next morning by packing spaghetti for their lunches, trying his best to please them. In a way, Buddy’s lack of knowledge is relatable to other humans – it may be humorous when he takes Jovie to a restaurant boasting “the world’s greatest coffee” on their date, but is it really any different from a native New Yorker like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver taking a date to an XXX-rated movie?
Ferrell, who had been a regular on Saturday Night Live for almost a year, showcased his comedic range in the movie Elf. He was able to effortlessly adapt to different scenarios and elevate them, such as when his character Buddy transformed a dull mailroom into a lively party or unintentionally caused chaos at a meeting with a famous author (Peter Dinklage) whom he mistook for an elf. Although playing a simple-minded character, Buddy’s determination is what drives the whole film: the people around him can either remain unhappy or give in to the infectious Christmas spirit that he continuously shares.
The selection of traditional holiday movies is lacking. If you search for “Christmas movies” on Google, you’ll find that most of the enduring ones are just average, using predictable methods like physical comedy or sentimental moments, sometimes both at once. However, Elf stands out as a decent choice in that aspect. Despite being over 20 years old, it remains a popular choice for many. Will Ferrell’s performance is especially noteworthy for his dedication to keeping the holiday spirit alive, something he does not only during Christmas time but throughout the year.