Will Ferrell’s “Elf” is a wonderful film to watch with your family over the holidays, as long as you don’t pay any attention to the actual story…
Making a “classic” family Christmas movie is harder than it looks. On the surface, it seems like an easy job—make something that a family can sit down together to watch after a meal (or an extended argument about Obama) that makes people laugh, doesn’t offend anyone’s intelligence, and, oh yeah, it should probably have something to do with the holidays too. But, even though that bar seems pretty low, most Christmas movies never really find that sweet spot within our family’s holiday pop culture consciousness.
Sure, there are the all-time classics—It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street—and the relatively modern favorites—A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation—but there haven’t been many truly memorable family holiday movies over the past decade.
One of few exceptions is ELF, directed by Jon Favreau and starring the great Will Ferrell, and it’s hard to deny that it’s a pretty solid Christmas movie. It’s funny, you can share it with your kids, it’s the kind of movie that, if a basic cable channel decided to show it for 24-hours straight, you wouldn’t mind all that much. Let it be said that I am a fan of Elf. As a family holiday movie, it works.
BUT… let it also be said that Elf is an insane movie. IN-SANE. It has subplots that almost literally make no rational sense, storylines that I honestly can’t believe that any screenwriter was able to submit without a guilty look on their face.
And I’m not talking about the “human raised by elves” or “Santa flying through Central Park” stuff. All the magical and romance stuff constitutes Elf’s A-story (its primary plot) and I’m fine with those scenes. My willing suspension of disbelief covers them. But Elf’s A-story is so fun and Will Ferrell is so damn charming that people often forget about the movie’s B-story, which… is INSANE.
Elf’s B-story mostly revolves around James Caan’s workplace woes and almost every scene involving James Caan at work is the textbook definition of batshit crazy.
Let’s remember how we’re first introduced to James Caan. We meet Caan’s Walter Hobbs as he’s in the process of repossessing books from an orphanage.
Let that soak in for a second—repossessing books from an orphanage.
I get what the screenwriters were trying to do. Santa has just told Buddy the Elf that his father is on the Naughty List and, of course, we need to jump cut to seeing Walter Hobbs being naughty, really naughty, so we can track his transformation throughout the movie from a total Grinch to the smiling dad of an out-and-proud elf. But, again, let me mention that he’s REPOSSESSING BOOKS FROM AN ORPHANAGE.
Let’s break down what this scene is asking us to believe.
1. That a children’s publishing company LEASES books to orphanages. (Because that makes any kind of rational financial sense.)
2. That, if payment is not made on time for those leased books, the children’s publishing company will attempt to REPOSSSESS said books. (Because the resale value of books that orphans have been clutching for months is SUPER high.)
3. That, if the orphanage receives notice of forthcoming repossession, the nun who runs the orphanage will make an appointment to plead for mercy to a high-ranking executive.
4. That a high-ranking executive of a publishing company personally handles overdue account matters and personally meets with nuns who run orphanages who LEASE HIS BOOKS.
As someone who works in the publishing industry, let me tell you… I have never, ever seen a more insane depiction of how publishing actually works. Elf understands how publishing works about as well as badgers understand quantum physics.
And don’t get me started on Caan releasing a book with the final pages missing, OR the fact that his bosses expect him to conceive of and publish a brand-new book in a few weeks (rather than just accelerating the publication of an already-in-the-works title), OR the fact that Hobbs has two staff writers that are apparently on the payroll and work in his office every day, OR that those two writers steal a sketchbook from an award-winning author and plan to publish a book based on those sketches without getting sued into oblivion, OR that the board of directors of a children’s publisher would actually WANT to hold a meeting on Christmas Eve…
I’m not saying all this to try to suggest that Elf is a bad movie. It isn’t. Like I mentioned before, Elf works. It’s charming as hell. In fact, it is SO charming that huge portions of the movie make little to no sense and, as an audience, we don’t care. Elf is packed with bizarre, half-considered plot points that would sink almost any other film, but Favreau, Ferrell, and their cohorts created something in the character of Buddy the Elf that makes us ignore a whole lot of narrative sins.
Elf is an above-average holiday movie. It’s the kind of film you can turn on at a family gathering and it has something for everyone. And that’s a rare commodity.
And it’s an especially impressive achievement when you realize that so many parts of the film make so little sense. It’s a film with a pediatrician performing instant paternity tests, rock-star overpaid children’s authors, and a business model that rationalizes the economic benefits of LEASING PICTURE BOOKS TO ORPHANAGES, and yet… despite my better judgment… I will probably end up watching Elf 10 to 20 times over the next few weeks and I will not mind it. In fact, I’ll enjoy the hell out of it.
That’s the power of a great family holiday movie. It helps you enjoy the good stuff and ignore the bad, and what more can we ask for to help get us through the holidays?