The Best Way to Spread Gen X Cheer
On Christmas Eve last year we sent out this beat-by-beat analysis of It’s A Wonderful Life, and it quickly turned into one of our best-performing pieces of the year. So this year we thought we’d cement our own new Christmas tradition with a micro-analysis of another Metropolitan seasonal favourite: Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003). If you haven’t watched Elf this is honestly probably not a good place to start, but the basic outline of the story is that an orphaned baby named Buddy (Will Ferrell) crawls inside Santa’s sack one Christmas Eve and is thus raised as an elf at the North Pole. When he finally realises he’s human, he journeys to New York to find his biological family.
Oh, hello. You're, uh, you're probably here about the, uh, the story.
The very first shot in Elf is a statement in itself, because there - intelligent but not po-faced, calm but slightly cock-eyed, sitting right in the middle of the frame, wearing an elf hat and tights - is Bob fucking Newhart, one of the towering comic geniuses of mid-century America. Consider our expectations raised.
BUDDY & EVERYONE
The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!
This is what Will Ferrell is chanting when we first catch sight of him as Buddy. He is a massive man in banana yellow tights squashed into a tiny elf classroom desk among his tiny elf friends. It’s a beautifully hilarious reveal of the movie’s core joke, but - like so much in this film - this scene serves the plot in more ways than one. Favreau didn’t want to make a comedy film that was just ‘one long sketch’; he wanted a proper plot that was driven by real characters. He also has a strong sense of satisfying dramatic structure. This dictum from the Elf Code, apparently thrown away as the background to a visual joke, is going to be the crucial mechanism at the climax of the movie.
I'm a cotton-headed ninny-muggins!
That's not true, you have lots of talents. Special talents. Like, uh...
You changed the batteries in the fire alarm!
You sure did! Triple As!
As the Elf Code says: ‘There’s room for everyone on the nice list.’ Early drafts of the script had Buddy being bullied relentlessly by the elves, but Favreau insisted instead that Buddy’s formative environment should be almost insanely positive and kind. This is crucial: it explains Buddy’s naivety, and differentiates it from simple idiocy or weird creepiness.
Well, Buddy, as silly as it sounds, there are a lot of people down South who don't believe in Santa Claus.
What? Who do they think puts all their toys under the tree?
There's a rumour floating around that parents are putting them there.
That's ridiculous! There's no way parents could do that all in one night!
Elf wasn’t the first family film that worked across generations; Pixar was already turning those out on a regular basis by the time it was released. But it is, nevertheless, a shining example of a film that demonstrates respect and affection for all its potential audiences, and deserves to be ranked with Pixar’s best.
INT. SANTA'S WORKSHOP - TOY TESTING. BUDDY IS TESTING JACK IN THE BOXES. HE TURNS THE CRANK PRODUCING THE 'POP GOES THE WEASEL' TUNE AND A PUPPET POPS OUT, SCARING HIM EVERY TIME.
This is just a great, beautiful, standalone bit of physical business. (The Jack in the Boxes were on a remote control operated by a crew member, and Ferrell genuinely didn’t know when they were going to explode in his face.) Casting options for Buddy included Chris Farley and Jim Carrey, but it’s hard to imagine this movie working without Ferrell, and it’s quite distressing to think about what Carrey would have done with it. Favreau and Ferrell have both said how important it was that Ferrell’s performance wasn’t remotely meta; it never commentates on itself or winks at the audience, and there is absolutely no cynicism in it.
Bye, Buddy. Hope you find your Dad.
Favreau talks a lot about how he wanted to make Elf feel like one of the TV Christmas specials he watched while growing up. To achieve this look in the North Pole scenes he largely eschewed computer graphics and stuck to labour-intensive manual effects, including forced perspective (with the ‘elves’ pushed back into the distance behind Ferrell to make them look small) and the stop-motion animation that is used for the Arctic animals. Favreau was referencing the Rankin Bass Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (1964); these weren’t often shown in the UK but Paddington, Morph and Bagpuss sure as hell were, meaning that British Gen Xers receive the same nostalgic rush when they see a bit of stop-motion. And as with so many other design choices in this movie, the absence of obvious contemporary markers - however good the CGI might have been for 2003, it would have started to look crappy by now - makes it blissfully watchable decades later.
EXT. CANADA, DAY.
BUDDY IS HALFWAY THERE AND IS NOW CLEARLY IN THE REAL WORLD.
About 15 minutes into Elf - yes, it’s taken us that long to get here - there’s this brief sequence in which Buddy pokes his head out of some bushes on the side of a tarmacked road, looks around him, and then steps onto the roadway and starts walking south. There’s no joke or plot point here, except that this roadside is the point where the movie crosses from one world to another. Which of these worlds is magic and which is real will depend on your perspective: as Santa tells Buddy, he is heading to ‘a magical land called New York City’.
A SIGN AT A CRAPPY DINER SAYS ‘WORLD'S BEST CUP OF COFFEE!’ BUDDY IS EXCITED AND ENTERS. THE JADED BANGLADESHI STAFF STARE AT HIM BLANKLY.
Wow! The world's best cup of coffee! You did it! Congratulations! To all of you!
This scene is part of a montage of Buddy encountering New York for the first time, which includes at least four brilliant jokes. The studio lobbied hard for the montage to be set to a piece of contemporary pop, but Favreau - who wanted to make a film that ‘could have been made 30 years in the past and could be watched 30 years into the future’ - insisted on using Louis Prima singing ‘Pennies from Heaven’: boisterous, classic New York jazz.
No, I want to take a thirty-thousand dollar bath so some kid understands what happened to a friggin' puppy and a pigeon. Ship ‘em!
Buddy’s biological father Walter Hobbs (James Caan) is a cynical children’s publisher, which is funny and also spot on. It makes his grumpiness comical while still hinting at the possibilities for redemption; after all, he must have originally gone into children’s books for a reason, possibly even a good one. Also, just sit and think for a moment about the sheer balls of casting James Caan in this part (he was fresh from shooting Lars von Trier’s Dogville). It’s not said often enough that the principal actors in Elf - Ferrell, Caan, Mary Steenburgen as Walter’s wife Emily - turn in serious performances that are dramatic as well as comedic. Caan, Newhart and Zooey Deschanel also play refreshingly drily against Ferrell’s vast zaniness, as do many of the actors in more minor roles. The comedy grows naturally out of well-established, consistent, recognisable characters.
(TRYING TO MAKE UP A SONG)
I'm here, with my dad. I've never met him, and he wants me to sing him a song. I was adopted, and you didn't know I was born. But I'm here now! And I love you, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU!!!
Wow. That's weird. Usually you guys just put my name into ‘Jingle Bells’ or something.
This rendering of the kinds of songs small children make up on the spot is absolutely chef’s kiss. Also: Buddy is the unemployed, 30-something, man-child offspring of a broken Boomer home, hopelessly out of his depth in the big, modern city. This really is the quintessential Gen X Christmas film.
BUDDY STARTS SKIPPING ACROSS THE STREET TOWARD GIMBELS WHEN – BAM! BUDDY'S HIT BY A CAB. HE FLIES OFF-SCREEN. THIS IS TOTALLY SHOCKING. TRAFFIC STOPS. AND NOW BUDDY COMES SKIPPING BACK INTO FRAME.
I'm okay! Thank you!
Favreau filled Elf with references to other classics. Gimbels department store - which closed in the ‘80s - played a small role in A Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Similarly, towards the end of the film a disconsolate Buddy stands on the 59th Street Bridge and looks into the dark water as the snow falls around him, a deliberate echo of a key scene in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).
INT. GIMBELS - SANTA LAND - 7 AM
JOVIE IS IN THE SHOWER STALL SINGING HALF OF THE CLASSIC DUET ‘BABY, IT'S COLD OUTSIDE’. BUDDY SITS, HYPNOTISED, QUIETLY SINGING ALONG. EVENTUALLY HE CAN'T HELP HIMSELF AND BELTS OUT THE CHORUS.
A man sneaking into a women’s shower to sing along to a song that has become a byword for skeeviness: this scene ought to be creepy, and even at the time Favreau intended it to be ‘sort of romantic but sort of weird’. (This is a fairly classic Gen X having-it-both-ways move, as we’ll discuss when we get to Miles Finch.) The combination of Deschanel’s Doris Day singing voice, Ferrell’s joyful innocence, the scene’s brutal slapstick ending and the general goodwill of the movie means they get away with it.
You sit on a throne of lies!
An improvised line from Ferrell that lives on in a thousand memes. Watch the kid on ‘Santa’s’ knee in this scene. He’s an absolute delight.
He got mad at me.
Also, watch James Caan in this scene, after the doctor - played by Favreau - gives Buddy a finger prick. He has to turn away from the camera to hide the fact that Will Ferrell’s reaction has made him laugh so hard.
(IN BED WITH THE LIGHTS OFF)
Buddy is, essentially, a giant toddler, and causes exactly the kind of crap that toddlers always cause. Within 12 hours of entering Walter and Emily’s home he has covered the floor and every available surface with an unstoppable avalanche of oomska. Caan is brilliant at conveying the physical reaction this kind of chaos produces in tidy adults. There’s a moment in this scene between Walter and Buddy - in which Walter is desperate to leave the room, and Buddy keeps calling him back - when a muscle twitches in Caan’s cheek, and parents everywhere instinctively understand that he’s struggling to control a dreadful impulse to throw Buddy out of the window.
Hey, Francisco! That's fun to say! Fran-cis-co!
When Buddy goes to work with Walter he sits in the corner of the office reading a book with a cartoon pig on the cover. You can just see that the book is called ‘Pigmalion’, and like many things in Elf this tiny visual joke is deliberately sophisticated: Elf is the story of how New York and its citizens teach Buddy to be a human adult. (Filmed very shortly after 9/11, it is a love letter to the city.) Without this progression in Buddy’s character, the film would just be one comic bit after another. As well as rewriting Pygmalion, Elf manages to bolt It’s a Wonderful Life (man realises his place in his community) onto Miracle on 34th Street (Christmas spirit is saved) and A Christmas Carol (a cynic is redeemed). It truly is the turducken of Christmas stories.
If you’re reading this you can’t be a cotton-headed ninny-muggins, so you’ll know you ought to subscribe to The Metropolitan to get essays like this every Saturday morning.
THE PHONE RINGS. BUDDY BEATS WALTER TO IT.
(super-fast into phone)
Buddy the Elf! What's your favourite colour?
This is how everyone should answer the phone.
THEY LOOK INTO EACH OTHER'S EYES AND BUDDY ABRUPTLY PLANTS A KISS ON JOVIE'S CHEEK.
SHE LEANS IN AND KISSES HIM FULL ON THE MOUTH.
A pretty cute bit of dialogue for a romcom, but this is still a love scene between a man-child and a hipster weirdo, and not even Deschanel and Ferrell can quite make it work (although wardrobe does do a very careful job of dressing Jovie as precisely the sort of oddball who might fall for Buddy). The romance plot really needed a little extra time to work. But it could have been worse: at least Buddy has swapped his tights for trousers.
No farms. Everyone's pushing small-town rural. Any farm book will just be white noise.
This whole business with Miles Finch (Peter Dinklage) as the ‘golden ghost’ of picture book writing is a complex joke. The joke isn’t that adults are taking children’s picture books seriously; it’s that they’re taking it the wrong kind of seriously. They’re thinking hard about marketing and focus groups, and not hard enough about wonder and imagination - the stuff that Buddy instinctively respects.
He's an angry elf.
This is a bit near the knuckle, isn’t it, this stuff about a little person getting mistaken for an elf? There is something quintessentially Gen X about it: something a bit South Park and something a bit Ricky Gervais, a joke that deliberately occupies the marshy borderlands between the accurate comic identification of discomfort, and simply being a twat. The film kind of gets away with it thanks to Buddy’s innocence, and the fact that we know he knows actual elves, and the fact that everyone else clearly signals that what he’s saying is appalling. But there’s no way this theme, treated in this way, would make it into a remake. It helps a lot that Peter Dinklage gives a note-perfect performance of Finch as self-obsessed, commercial and crass, a small man in everything but height. (Although he’s probably been made that way by a lifetime of people being arseholes to him.)
Son, you'll have to wait.
No, d-don't tell my kid what to do, uh...
This is where you start crying, and your teenage children - who know this film every bit as well as you do - don’t really understand why.
SANTA JUMPS OUT FROM UNDER THE HOOD CLUTCHING A TIRE IRON
Back off slick!!!
Ed Asner as Santa is another inspired use of US sitcom royalty, and another bonus for UK kids who watched Lou Grant or The Mary Tyler Moore Show over their parents’ shoulders. Asner’s genial gruffness lets you know that while he might be more streetwise than Buddy, that’s only after a few hundred years of learning hard lessons.
SANTA NARROWS HIS EYES
Oh no. It’s the Central Park Rangers.
For years, at least one Metropolitan editor was under the impression that the joke here was that the Central Park Rangers were amiable parkies with a reputation for being officious, like their ‘70s British counterparts who were forever telling you not to have dangerous amounts of fun on the swings. But no: that wrinkle that you can feel in the texture of the film at this point is explained by the fact that the Rangers simply don’t exist, and had to be invented to solve a plot difficulty. The original script had Buddy and Santa involved in a shoot-out with the NYC police on Fifth Avenue - honestly, the original script sounds worse and worse the more you hear about it - and Favreau had to dream up an antagonist that would fit better with the tone of the film. Hence the ‘mysterious dark force’ of the Central Park Rangers, which, we repeat, do not exist. You’re welcome.
Santa Claus is coming to town!
Public singing: you can do it half-heartedly or you can do it full-throatedly, and we all know the difference. One of Elf’s core lessons is that life is all about committing to the bit. Buddy’s committing to the bit spreads Christmas cheer; Will Ferrell committing to the bit sells this film. And the film commits to the bit here. Santa’s sleigh just needs a smidgen more Christmas spirit in order to fly, and it doesn’t get it until Walter commits to the bit and sings along lustily with everyone else. As Favreau has pointed out, it’s a bit of a cliche, but this is Christmas and no time to be underplaying it.
PAPA ELF (V.O.)
Walter started his own independent publishing company. His first book was written by a brand new critically acclaimed children's author. The book was called Elf, a fictional story about an adopted elf named Buddy who was raised in the North Pole, went to New York, ate spaghetti, worked in a shiny mailroom and eventually saved Christmas.
A redeemed Walter makes books that bring wonder, and a newly adult Buddy evolves from decorating department stores to furnishing imaginations. How delightfully meta - how splendidly Gen X - that the story becomes a story within the story. Like a Borges story, but in yellow tights and a silly hat.
Still not thinking about what Buddy and Jovie did in order to produce that baby, though. Nope, nope, nope.
You can read our obsessive rewatch of It’s A Wonderful Life here: