Why Exposing Santa is So Important in Will Ferrell’s ‘Elf’
Elf is a 2003 comedy about a man raised in the North Pole who returns to New York City is search of his real father.
Some things just work. For example, putting ungainly comedy star Will Ferrell in green leotards. That’s just funny. Put him in a film where he thinks he’s an elf in he North Pole, well, that’s just gold. That’s why 2003’s holiday hit Elf not only worked as a great Christmas movie, it became one of the most beloved ever in the genre. You want holiday cheer and to spit eggnog out your nose from laughing? This is where that happens.
The plots goes like this: While delivering gifts to an orphanage on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus (Edward Asner) doesn’t realize that a baby has crawled into his sack until he returns to the North Pole, where Pappa Elf (Bob Newhart) voluntarily raises him until one day, when “Buddy” (Ferrell) finally gets that he’s not exactly like the other elves, decides to contact his real dad, Walter (James Caan) who lives in New York and just so happens to be on Santa’s naughty list. Time for some bonding.
Directed by Jon Faverau, this is a family comedy with its heart in the right place, perfectly casting Ferrell as the innocent and naive man-child who, after living a life as an over-sized elf, comes to the real world and learns what it’s like to be a man. Sure, the ending falters a bit and can’t wrap-up the story as well is it should, however the relationships Buddy makes with his father, his new brother, and especially Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) – the quirky girl he falls for – are especially well done. What’s more, while sight gags and jokes are prevalent, the all feel earned, adding much the story’s already infectious warmth.
One of the more important moments comes after Buddy begins to learn that life in the big city is a little different than back home in the North Pole. The first problem is that can’t get past security in the building where his father works and is told – they thinking he is department store employee – to go back to Gimbels. So he does. Once there, he is actually mistaken for a worker by a manger (Faizon Love) and put to work in the Christmas section. That’s where he meets fellow ToyLand employee Jovie, a pretty but disillusioned clerk who also has a terrific singing voice, something he discovers while she’s is in the store employee shower. Buddy doesn’t quite get social graces.
Anyway, later on, when it is announced that Santa is coming to Gimbels, Buddy, naturally thinking it is, you know, the real Santa – someone he actually knows – gets overjoyed. It’s one of the funniest moments in the movie as he’s unable to contain his excitement. The exchange between Ferrell and Love is comedy manna. Of course, Buddy doesn’t understanding that in the human world, Santa is portrayed by actors. And the one coming to Gimbels isn’t quite up to snuff.
Before that revelation though, Buddy goes to work. To prepare for Kris Kringle’s arrival, he spends the entire night in the store alone using his elf skills to decorate the Christmas section in a wildly over-done display of paper cut-outs, LEGO cities, fake snow, trees and lights. It’s off the charts Christmas kitsch. When “Santa” (Artie Lange) finally does arrives, Buddy rushes to meet him, thinking he will see the man who actually lives in the North Pole. However, the imposter in a rented suit and beard feels a little off, and Buddy senses right away that something isn’t right. He accuses the Santa of being a fake and what’s more, of sitting on a throne of lies. These are choice words and while very funny, also reveals the depths of how committed Buddy is to his own reality.
Unable to take it, Buddy finally pulls the pretend beard from Santa’s face, causing a chorus of shocked screams from the children waiting for a chance to sit on St. Nick’s lap. Rightfully upset, Santa jumps on Buddy and the two begin to wrestle as Buddy continues to shout out that the man in the red suit is a fraud, destroying everything that he created the night before. It’s chaos in Toyland and more so, metaphorical of what is happening in Buddy’s displaced reality. As they wreck the wonderland Buddy built, it represents everything that Buddy has come to believe.
However, the thing about Buddy is his innocence. This is a grown man raised among actual elves in a world of pure sugary joy, and he’s suddenly thrust into another where that’s anything but the truth. And the truth hurts, even though he’s not quite able to process it. Rejected by his father and yet convinced he will win him over, he is at least held together by his faith in Santa and the spirit of Christmas. Nothing is going to break that. It’s a lifelong understanding of a fundamental reality. To have that tested though, with a fake Santa, is too much and it sends him right over the yuletide edge.
What’s so affecting about this is how authentically Buddy confronts the store Santa. Here’s a man who has spent 30 years with the real Santa and is unaware that others in the outside world take to replicating him as such. Buddy already has no real social filters and doesn’t even really notice that there are children all around waiting to get a chance to sit on Santa’s lap. That means he’s got no problem jumping up in front of everyone and taking to questioning the poor shlub in a red suit just trying to do his job. I love how this plays out, as if Buddy really is a child learning that something isn’t right, and smart enough to ask questions why.
Ferrell is almost unnervingly convincing as Buddy throughout, however, here, he’s particularly good at making Buddy a totally believable character, shattered by the thought that someone could actually try to pass himself off as Santa. He learns here that there is deception in this new world and yet won’t bend an inch, working to expose the fraud that this Santa is. While he causes mayhem in the process, he remains undeterred. Ultimately, this act of jingle jingle violence gets Buddy arrested and in turn connects him with Walter, his real father. Most importantly though, it doesn’t even put a chink in Buddy’s spirited armor. He is pure Christmas joy and unbreakable as such. It makes us feel the same.