The “Christmas movie” is a vital part of the experience of Christmas under modern consumer capitalism, which sustains itself by transforming vital human experience into commodities and selling them back to us. Christmas is red bunting going up at your workplace, sleigh bells creeping stealthily into the music at Walgreens, and commercials where a woman lovingly embraces her husband at the sight of a brand-new Kia Sorrento with a big red bow on top, all of which we’re meant to implicitly understand is a stand-in for the “real” experience of Christmas, intended to put you in mind of love, togetherness, generosity, forgiveness, redemption, and maybe honoring the birth of the Savior if you’re into that, no biggie. The symbol being so much more glamorous and simpler to attain than its referent, it gradually swallows the latter up (Baudrillard wrote about this in a book I skimmed for a theory class once. At least, I think it was about this.)
The function of the Christmas movie in this paradigm is to act as a long-form commercial, with lots of splashy shots of glitzy decorations and piles of consumer goods for you to enjoy, while having enough breathing room to support a didactic narrative about what you should really be enjoying instead. In Elf, though, something startling happens: this Christmas simulacrum becomes totally alienated from its ostensible subject. “Christmas spirit” for Elf means nothing more than the ability to derive pleasure from singing “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”.
Elf is about a man whose mother broke up with his father, dropped him at an orphanage, never told his father she was even pregnant, and subsequently died. Wait, it gets even funnier! He ended up at the North Pole as a baby after crawling into Santa’s gift bag, and was raised among Santa’s elves. Fast forward a few decades, when Buddy (Will Ferrell) becomes frustrated by his gigantic size and poor toy-making ability, and his foster father, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), decides to finally reveal the horrible truth. Thus begins Buddy’s odyssey to find his biological father (James Caan), a money-grubbing, workaholic…children’s book publisher? Sure, let’s go with that. Here, he will shriek and giggle his way through a series of limply comic plot contrivances before plonking down at the fuzzy-wuzzy ending inevitable as death.
I know there are plenty of anti-Ferrellites out there. I’m not one of them. I think Will Ferrell is a fine comedian, and he’s certainly making the most of the material he’s given. Thanks to his elfin upbringing, Buddy is a squealing, costumed manchild who enjoys all things Christmas to a perverse degree. His intelligence, emotional maturity, and familiarity with human culture are all below average but vary wildly according to the scene’s needs. It’s a pretty predictable schtick, but it mostly only becomes grating for lack of anything solid to bounce off. Will’s the only one in the whole cast trying to sell the premise. The bits are as bland and half-baked as my Christmas cookies, with a murderer’s row of comic talent – Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Ralphie from A Christmas Story – lining up to sigh and grumble at Will’s over-sugared toddler antics, visibly embarrassed to be there. Only a scene-stealing cameo from Peter Dinklage (as an arrogant children’s author) rivals Will’s commitment to the bit.
Everything about Elf is lazy, even by the standard of Christmas movies. There are an awful lot of pointed details in Elf that, with some very simple rewrites, could have been mined for subversive comedy without blunting its kiddie appeal. Instead, they’re just sort of there. The opening scenes set at the North Pole evoke the Rankin/Bass holiday specials of yesteryear, from the purposefully cheap-looking set design at Santa’s workshop to Buddy’s stop-motion animal friends (including one clearly modeled off Burl Ives’ snowman character from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Is Elf saying anything about those shows or the culture that produced them? No! During these scenes, we see the elves in their wholesome pre-industrial-looking workshop building modern, branded consumer products (most prominently Etch-A-Sketches). Is the disparity mined for laughs? Nope! If Buddy’s father is as crummy a guy as the movie says he is, we could see his wife having some complicated feelings about a long-lost love child of his showing up. Does the movie try to grapple with this? Ha ha, no! At one point, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), an unenthusiastic department store employee and Buddy’s love interest, has to shower at work because her water at home got shut off. Is there any thematic weight to be found in the fact that she’s working starvation wages at a store that facilitates bloated Christmas excess? Absolutely not, they forget it right away! In fact, they briefly show her apartment near the end of the movie, and it’s nice as hell!
Of course, Elf isn’t intended as a wicked adult-appealing satire. At its core, it merely wants to recreate the unalloyed Christmas joy of a small child. What makes the movie feel so weirdly hollow is its insistence on pursing this mission in the most literal and superficial possible sense. Five-year-olds think Christmas is just songs, tinsel, and presents, so Elf is damned if it’s going to make “Christmas spirit” mean anything else. The only parts of the movie where director Jon Favreau shows any flair are the montages of Buddy’s obsessive Christmas decorations, and the lingering shots on the finished products of his quest. For all the perfunctory subplots that might hint otherwise – Buddy’s dad’s presence on the Naughty List, Santa’s sleigh being unable to fly for lack of Christmas spirit – it’s telling that what finally saves the day in the climactic ending is simply a bunch of people singing a song about Santa Claus. Elf is the perfect encapsulation of a culture which elevates the consumption of mass-produced entertainment to pseudo-religious holiday ritual. In Elf, style is substance, symbol is reality, and a man in yellow tights is Jesus, Santa, and your family all in one.