Elf: Does the Modern Christmas Classic Hold Up 20 Years Later?

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Summary

  • Elf is a perfect marriage of actor and material, with Will Ferrell delivering his best role as Buddy the Elf, showcasing his comedic persona and impeccable physical presence.
  • The film stands out as one of the last great Christmas comedies, contrasting with other dire and cynical movies in the genre, by embracing an old-fashioned spirit and celebrating the holiday season with sincerity.
  • Elf, at two decades old, remains a timeless Christmas classic due to Ferrell’s hilarious performance, Jon Favreau’s direction, and its ability to appeal to both contemporary viewers and those who appreciate the old-fashioned charm of holiday films.


Twenty years ago, we saw the release of one of the last films that can sincerely be called a Christmas classic. That film was Elf, and it came at the perfect time. Will Ferrell was on the verge of kickstarting a successful film career after leaving Saturday Night Live, and an entire generation raised on SpongeBob SquarePants was beginning their cinematic education.

Today, it’s safe to say that Elf was a monster hit, as it’s become an annual viewing for many during the season. On top of turning Buddy the Elf into a household name, it spawned a moderately successful Broadway musical adaptation. To this day, it remains an utterly charming viewing, sly enough in its lampooning of the Christmas classics while also understanding the heart that made them classics in the first place.


Elf Is a Perfect Marriage of Actor and Material

Elf
Elf

Release Date
October 9, 2003

Rating
PG

Runtime
97

It’s safe to say that most people have seen Elf at least once, so rehashing the plot is like beating a dead horse. But what can’t be overstated is how perfectly the film is a marriage of an actor and his material; to this day, outside of maybe Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s best role could very well be Buddy the Elf.

Part of this is because of how well the character played to Ferrell’s comedic persona as a manchild. Throughout his time on SNL, Ferrell became beloved for his larger-than-life presence, which could manifest in either angry, explosive comedic outbursts or an eagerness that practically begged the viewers to love him. The latter skill was tailor-made for Buddy the Elf, with Ferrell bringing the character to life through a combination of impeccable physical presence and a total sincerity with which he delivered some of Buddy’s most absurd non-sequiturs.

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Consider the sequence at the Gimbels department store when Buddy learns that Santa will visit. Everyone knows the now-legendary reaction Buddy gives upon hearing the news, but every bit as hilarious is what comes after, when he spends the night redecorating the store and when he later learns the Gimbels Santa is not the real deal. Ferrell plays these scenes like a child promised his dream Christmas present, ecstatic upon discovering it but deeply betrayed once it’s snatched away. Any other actor could overplay this comedic scenario and make it unbearable, but Ferrell hits just the right tone. His genuineness makes it hysterical.

Helping matters is that he’s backed up by an absolutely stacked ensemble cast, with a hall of veteran actors and newcomers filling the supporting cast, few expected but all utterly inspired. Comedy legend Bob Newhart plays Papa Elf, Buddy’s adoptive father, Ed Asner portrays Santa Claus, and Zooey Deschanel is Jovie, Buddy’s love interest. The late James Caan, best known for gritty affairs like Thief and The Godfather, plays hilariously against type in a brilliant deadpan performance, and a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage steals every second of his only scene.

Elf Is Contemporary With a Classical Spirit

Another large part of what’s helped Elf endure for two decades is how it was one of the last truly great Christmas comedies. Consider the slate in that genre in the 2000s – Christmas With the Kranks, Surviving Christmas, The Santa Clause 3, and Deck the Halls. Almost all of these movies were dire, with some of the most criminally unfunny writing of the decade, but worse was the cynicism with which they illustrated the holiday season. They treated Christmas as either a celebration of materialism in which those trying to avoid conformity were in the wrong or a backdrop for mean-spirited protagonists treating each other hatefully. It’s no accident that Christmas comedies have become few and far between in the last decade.

Elf, by contrast, certainly added a more contemporary edge to the season, using its opening moments to poke fun at Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Rankin-Bass stop-motion classics. But Jon Favreau directs the film with an old-fashioned spirit, using Buddy the Elf as a paragon of sincerity in an increasingly cynical world. Key to the movie’s success is Buddy’s relationship with the supporting ensemble; Jovie, his father, his adoptive brother, and even the Gimbels manager all treat him with initial disdain. But they quickly realize he’s the only one sincere about the holiday season, and he gradually reminds them what it feels like to be excited about Christmas.

It’s no accident that Faverau repeatedly pays homage to It’s a Wonderful Life throughout; Elf reaches the same thematic conclusion that even in an increasingly materialistic world, Christmas is a time for celebrating and treasuring the connections with our loved ones. The result is a contemporary holiday comedy with an old-fashioned spirit, a combination sadly all too rare these days, and considering how many people today regularly name it one of the best Christmas movies ever, clearly, that blend paid off.

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Elf Is Two Decades Old and Still Every Bit as Great

At two decades old, Elf is every bit the Christmas classic that it was upon its initial release, and in many regards, its greatness has become more apparent with age. Buddy the Elf remains arguably Will Ferrell’s defining role, brought to life through a blisteringly funny comedic performance. Jon Faverau’s direction hits the perfect balance of appealing to contemporary viewers while remaining old-fashioned in its sincerity about the holiday spirit. We’ve all seen Elf at least once in our lives, and as we head toward Christmas, now is the time to revisit it once again.

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