Elf: 20 Years of Spreading Christmas Cheer
Tradition. It’s what makes the holiday season so unique, nostalgic and memorable. The smell of a Christmas tree in the living room illuminated by the soft light of a burning log in the fireplace. Inflatable cartoon characters dominating the landscape of the front yard. Eating grandma’s delicious red and green sprinkled sugar cookies accompanied by a mug of peppermint hot chocolate. Listening to Bing Crosby’s Christmas album on dad’s old record player. These are the moments that make the holiday season so anticipated.
But there’s one tradition in particular that seems to dominate them all: reciting holiday movie quotes. What is your favorite quote from a holiday movie? Is it “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”? Or how about “Keep the change, ya filthy animal”? Of course, no one would fault you if your favorite quote was “Remember, George: No man is a failure who has friends”. With every beloved holiday movie comes a plethora of quotes along with it. Just go to your everyday major chain store like Target, Walmart or Big Lots and see how many of our favorite quotes from holiday movies are plastered on every item one can buy!
Despite the many holiday movies and all their witty quotes and sayings, IMHO there is one that triumphs over all… Elf (2003).
This November – November 9th to be exact – marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Elf starring Will Ferrell. In celebration of this momentous occasion, we’ll be investigating why Elf is so beloved due to its unproven star, inclusive humor and iconic movie quotes!
Let’s turn back the calendar to November 2003.
It is still very early in the new millennium. Personal cellphones are starting to be in every purse and pocket in America. The #1 song on the radio was 3 Doors Down’s “Here Without You”. Ricky Martin and Lance Bass were still dating women. And on a more serious note, the United States was still reeling from the recent attacks of September 11th and adjusting to the reality of the ‘War on Terror’. This is the real life backdrop to this quirky little movie.
The plot of Elf is that lead character Buddy the Elf, a 6’5’’ tall grown man played by SNL alum Will Ferrell, discovers that he was adopted as a baby by an elderly elf, played by Bob Newhart (Newhart), from the North Pole. Upon learning this news, Buddy travels “through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gumdrops, and then walks through the Lincoln Tunnel” to the enormous world of New York City. While in NYC, Buddy searches for and reconnects to his biological father, Walter Hobbs, played by the esteemed James Caan (The Godfather). Unwillingly and out of not compassionate but pity, Walter houses Buddy in his family home as his wife, Emily, played by the lovely Mary Steenburgen (Back to the Future Part III), attempts to encourage her husband to be a present and loving father to Buddy and current son Michael, played by Daniel Tay (American Splendor). The movie is your classic “fish out of water” tale as Buddy tries to adapt to the world of human life while spreading Christmas cheer to all who have lost theirs, including love interest Jovie, played by Zooey Deschanel (New Girl). The movie comes to a head as Santa Claus, played by Edward Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), runs out of fuel on his sleigh on Christmas Eve night, only to be stranded in Central Park. It is up to Buddy, his new love Jovie, and his human family to save Christmas the only way possible… spreading Christmas cheer.
The movie is absolutely shouldered by the performance of Will Ferrell’s portrayal of the goofy yet lovable Buddy the Elf.
Of course now in 2023, we know that Will Ferrell has the impeccable screen presence and charisma to carry such a movie, but this wasn’t the case twenty years ago. Back when the movie was first being filmed in December 2002, Will Ferrell was best known for his roles in various SNL produced films such as A Night at the Roxbury (1998), Superstar (1999) and The Ladies Man (2000). Unfortunately for Ferrell and the SNL brand, these movies were mostly shunned by critics with mixed reviews from the fans. The most iconic Will Ferrell role during this time was the indestructible henchman Mustafa who appeared in the first two Austin Powers movies starring fellow SNL alum, Mike Myers (Wayne’s World). In this role, Ferrell’s Mustafa was a gimmick character who found himself in situations that normally would kill the common folk. However, Mustafa miraculously would survive being the driver of a car speeding off a cliff, having a lethal dart torpedoed to the side of his neck causing him to fall over the same said cliff and finally burning alive in a gulf of flames for minutes on end…still surviving all of this. This was the resume on which New Line Cinema was banking their $33 million dollar budget. Well, they knew what they had in Ferrell because the film ended up earning $227,356,156 worldwide.
What makes Ferrell’s performance of Buddy work even more is the surrounding cast around him.
I mentioned earlier that the story of Elf really plays like a “fish out of water tale”, and nothing could be truer than the cast itself. James Caan’s role of Walter is the antithesis to Buddy. Whereas Buddy is tall, gentle, generous and enthusiastic about life, Walter is short in stature, harsh, distant and easily annoyed. It is worth noting that just as Buddy and Walter are antithetical from each other, so are the careers of Ferrell and Caan. Unlike Ferrell whose movie career was just rising at the release of Elf, Caan was a seasoned actor who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the 1973’s Academy Awards for his role as mob gangster Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather (1972). For Caan to be in a “goofy family holiday movie” at the time would’ve been unthinkable, but lucky for every viewer of Elf, Caan took on the role of Walter and gave an excellent performance.
To Ferrell’s credit, Elf’s comedy doesn’t rely on vulgar jokes, crude humor and for better or worse, we don’t see Buddy running across the North Pole in his “birthday suit”.
Ferrell taps into a side of comedy that is rarely seen anymore: wholesome, slapstick comedy. The visual of Buddy alone sends a smile across your face. Will Ferell’s behemoth frame snuggled in elegant elf attire is half of the comedy in itself. Ferrell has a command of physical comedy and it is on full display in Elf. From Buddy busting through the office doors of Walter’s important business meeting shouting “I’m in love! I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it!” while spinning in circles without a care in the world, to Buddy shoveling down a plate of spaghetti noodles drenched in maple syrup and sprinkles (and in case you were wondering, Will Ferrell in fact did eat spaghetti with syrup during the filming of the movie), Will Ferrell not just portrays the character of Buddy the Elf, Will Ferrell embodies Buddy the Elf.
Story time. I’ll never forget the first time I watched Elf.
I was thirteen years old and I saw the film in the theaters, which ended up being one of the most memorable theater experiences I ever had. One Saturday afternoon in November, my dad took my sister, who is five years younger than me, and myself to the movie theater, but there was a catch. We weren’t going to see a movie all together. Instead, my dad insisted that I take my sister to see Elf while he went to see Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003) on his own. It was rated R and my dad wasn’t going to subject his 8-year-old daughter to a movie so heart-wrenching. So, being the young teenager I was, of course, I rebelled at this!
“Dad! I don’t want to see some stupid kids movie. Come on dad! Don’t make me do it. Please.”
To no one’s surprise, my teenage protest didn’t lead to the result I was looking for. With a tub of popcorn under one arm and a drink in another, I led my sister to our theater while dad departed down the other hallway. There I was, a whole 13 years old, stuck in a kids movie with my little sister. What a way to spend a Saturday. “This just better go quickly,” I thought to myself.
To my utmost surprise, by the fifteen minute mark of Elf, I was completely enjoying myself. To this day, I still have fond memories of laughing hard along with my sister, watching Buddy the Elf jumping off the couch, using it as a trampoline, attempting to put the star on top of the Christmas tree. I learned that day that no matter what genre a movie might be categorized as, there is always an opportunity for a viewer to enjoy the film. The viewer just has to be open to the experience.
The comedy of Elf has dynamic powers. If it can change the attitude of a disgruntled teen, imagine what it can do for the world.
*Writer’s Note: After both films ended, my sister and I reunited with my dad. As we were walking out of the movie theater he asked us how we liked the movie. With much enthusiasm my sister and I both exclaimed “Loved it! It was hilarious!” To which my dad responded, “Oh. I probably should’ve watched your movie. My movie was depressing.”
Lastly, what absolutely makes Elf stand out amongst its other holiday movie counterparts is how contagiously fun it is to quote this movie!
This article started with memorable movie quotes from cherished holiday movies from different eras, and twenty years later, Elf is king of all of them in this category. “I am a cotton-headed ninny muggins!”, “I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite”, “Son of a nutcracker!”, “SANTA! Oh my God! Santa, here?! I know him! I know him!”, “Bye Buddy, hope you find your dad!” Honestly the list is endless.
Each quote depicts the innocence and wholesomeness of Buddy, a full-grown man who was raised by elves in an environment of cheer, encouragement and thoughtfulness. The setting of NYC should not be lost on us as an audience because after all it was that city in particular that was still recovering from the aftermath of the tragedy that occurred just two years before the release of Elf.
It was Buddy’s presence alone that not just brought his family together, but saved Christmas for all families that memorable Christmas Eve Night. Buddy was exactly what his family and city of New York needed to remember that joy from love is always available. After all, if Buddy is willing to embrace and say to a wild raccoon in the wilderness, “Does somebody need a hug?” for the sake of kindness, what gesture can we offer this holiday season? And if we need a reminder about where to start, remember, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”