Buddy and Jovie in elf clothing in the movie Elf


Will Ferrell has always been really hit-or-miss for me; so have Christmas movies. Thankfully, Elf, a 2003 Christmas movie starring Will Ferrell, is a huge hit. Directed by Jon Favreau (About a Boy, Iron Man) and starring Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, and James Caan, this Christmas film is just the right amount of goofiness and sentiment to make it special without making it so sugary sweet that I need to watch Fight Club afterwards. I debated whether it belongs on my list of classic and essential films, but after watching it again this holiday season, I have to admit: this is a great film that’s fun to watch and will be around for decades, much like A Christmas Story. Even after watching this virtually every Christmas for the last ten years or so, it’s still a joy to watch. It’s a fun holiday film that can make any dreary December a little more merry.

The plot follows Buddy, a human who was orphaned as a baby and accidentally picked up by Santa Claus and brought back to the North Pole. As he didn’t have any parents to return to, Santa kept him there and gave him to one of his elves, where Buddy was raised as an elf to work in Santa’s workshop. When Buddy’s true heritage is revealed to him as an adult, he sets out on a journey to find his biological father, Walter, who is living in New York City. Unfortunately, and much to Buddy’s dismay, Walter is one of the names on Santa’s naughty list. As Buddy struggles to survive in New York City and get close to his newfound family, Walter struggles with what to do with an old part of his past that he’d rather forget. In the midst of it all, Buddy meets and grows attached to Jovie, a jaded department store worker who would rather just get through Christmas without any cheer.

You disgust me! How can you live with yourself? You sit on a throne of lies!

There’s nothing deep or earth-shattering about this film; it’s simply fun, and it accomplishes this relatively simple goal exceedingly well. Will Ferrell’s antics aren’t always funny to me, but they work so well for the character of Buddy that I can’t help but like him. Zooey Deschanel is equally charming, shedding her common manic pixie dream girl persona to play a tired and worn-down department store clerk in desperate need of some holiday cheer. The script is genuinely funny, even when it’s goofy and somewhat ridiculous, and it’s aged remarkably well in the 15 years since its release. This is a film that just about anyone can enjoy, and it’s a great way to unwind in the often-stressful holiday season.

Elf really goes all-in on its concept. Buddy, as an elf, developed a taste for all things sweet and sugary, and Will Ferrell actually ate all of the sugary things that Buddy ate. He suffered from constant headaches during filming and actually vomited during his first take of the dinner scene where he eats spaghetti with maple syrup on it. The design for Santa’s workshop and the elf uniforms is taken directly from the 1964 Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The elf supervisor is played by none other than Peter Billingsley—Ralphie from A Christmas Story. There are also subtle nods to It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, and even Lethal Weapon. This wasn’t just a quick cash-grab Christmas movie, as we tend to see every year—it really loved that time of year and its characters, and it shows. In fact, a cash-grab sequel was initially planned based on the success of this film, and Will Ferrell turned down the role to protect the purity of the first film, effectively shutting down the project.

An angry department store manager gives Buddy an incredulous look in Elf
Smiling is not this guy’s favorite.

I’ll admit, the premise of this film is ridiculous, and I was apprehensive to watch the film all those years ago. This film shouldn’t work—but it does. I’m a pretty cynical film-watcher, so it’s hard for a family film to really hold my attention, but this one does exactly that. Buddy the Elf comes to New York City with a blissful naiveté, but he’s so earnest in his love for Christmas and desire to spread cheer that he wins the hearts of every character he comes into contact with. This movie has that same purity and sincerity and will win over even the grumpiest Scrooge.

Is Elf a Christmas film that everyone needs to see? Well, no. As I said, this isn’t a particularly deep movie, and it won’t make you re-evaluate your life. But it’s definitely a film that everyone can enjoy, from children to adults, and from sentimental viewers to cynical ones like me. This is still a relatively modern film, but it’s been around long enough and aged well enough to show that this is a new Christmas classic. I’ll likely be watching this film every Christmas for decades to come.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:37

Director: Jon Favreau

Year: 2003

Genres: Christmas, comedy

Rating: PG

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