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How ‘Elf’ Became a Modern Holiday Classic

Hidden Hills

December 22, 2023

From the WSJ:

Now 20 years old, the story of Buddy from the North Pole ranks right up there with ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘A Christmas Story.’ ‘You did it! Great work, everybody!’

This time of year, my family and I stick to the four main food groups:


Candy canes.

Candy Corn.


All right, fine. We don’t actually abide by this cavity-taunting diet—please don’t call local health authorities. This is merely a line from the modern holiday classic “Elf,” one of many goofy Will Ferrell quotes we repeat to each other until every chestnut is roasted and all gifts are aggressively unwrapped.

Son of a nutcracker!

You smell like beef and cheese, you don’t smell like Santa!

Good news! I saw a dog today!

The story of Buddy, an overgrown human elf (Ferrell) who travels from the North Pole to New York City to locate his crabby birth father (James Caan), “Elf” turned a sturdy 20 last month. The film is as beloved as ever, circulating constantly on cable, various streaming outlets and even tucking back into theaters a few weeks ago for a reprise run.

New York loves “Elf” back. Recently, the Empire State Building—where Buddy impishly pressed all 99 keys in the elevator his first time aboard—lit its exterior green and yellow in Buddy’s elfin honor. A tourist company is offering a comprehensive visit to filming locations, though you do not march alone through the Lincoln Tunnel, as Buddy hazardously did.

“Elf” is still everywhere. Directed by Jon Favreau and written by David Berenbaum, the film was popular upon its 2003 release—earning a reported $220 million box office on a budget of $33 million—but in the years since, it has surged into the holiday canon alongside heavyweights like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “A Christmas Story.”

There are other holiday reliables, of course, from “The Santa Clause” and “Edward Scissorhands” to “Home Alone” and “National Lampoon‘s Christmas Vacation,” and there’s long been a corner of the internet which maintains that “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie, since Bruce Willis dares to save rather than skip his wife’s office holiday party (Yipee-ki-yay).

I’d argue “Elf” sits alone at the top—Citizen Candy Cane, if you will. This claim may irritate nostalgists of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra, to say nothing of “Christmas Story” star Peter Billingsley’s Ralphie and his Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun, and I love both of those movies, too. I just need to live in the world of probabilities. If I want to get more than three loved ones to sit by the fire for a Christmas movie, I am picking “Elf.” Here’s my case.

It’s Sweet without Being…Syrupy.

Pardon my humbug, but there are a lot of very bad Christmas movies. Studios crank them out by the dozen, and most of them suffer from the same clichés and ooey-gooey candy corniness. “Elf” takes a lot of those themes and wraps them into something far more original. Much of this can be credited to Berenbaum, the screenwriter, an East Coaster who wrote the movie shortly after moving to Los Angeles. Homesick for the holiday spirit and the cheery magic of New York City, Berenbaum gorged on classics like “Wonderful Life” and “34th Street,” as well as Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” before sitting down to write “Elf.”

The result is a movie that melds an expert’s appreciation of the genre to Ferrell’s slapstick charm.

“It’s not a cynical movie,” Berenbaum tells me. “Its heart is sweet and warm. Buddy is a freight train of joy running through the entire film.”

There’s also this: “Elf” was one of the first major films shot in New York City after 9/11. “It was a city in mourning,” Favreau told Rolling Stone in 2013. “To go and make a movie about Christmas where the Empire State Building was something [Buddy] dreamed about from a snow globe, and his father worked there—it was almost like reclaiming Manhattan.” That optimistic streak still registers today. In precarious times, “Elf” makes its audience feel like the world is still a place where strangers might gather on the street and sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and you won’t die from eating wads of pre-chewed bubble gum stuck to the railing of a subway entrance.

It Holds Up to Endless Repeat Viewing.

By “repeat viewing,” I don’t mean seeing “Elf” twice. Nobody watches “Elf” just twice. Even an amateur Elfologist passes easily into high single to double digits. “Elf” is the effervescent kind of film that satisfies almost any mood and can be entered at any moment. Perhaps you come across it while flicking channels (humans over 40 still flick channels). Maybe you’re kicking back in 27A on a flight to Louisville, and it looks a lot more fun than the Oscar fare. Whether you hop into the movie when Buddy is at the North Pole testing jack-in-the-boxes, or down in the city discovering revolving doors, or unloading a fusillade of snowballs on a gang of bullies, it always delivers. I actually don’t think it’s possible to be sick of watching “Elf.” It’s like being sick of cookies, or the sun.

Most of this is Ferrell’s genius, of course, but it’s also because of the movie’s easy structure: It begins at the North Pole, winds its way into New York City and then finishes with a merry coda back at Santa Claus HQ. The plot isn’t especially dense or hard to follow. “Elf” is your classic man-child, fish-out-of-water, stranger-in-a-strange-land picture—a Ferrell standard—and most of its joy is found in innocent Buddy navigating the strange population and customs of midtown Manhattan. There’s a romance with a department store employee (played by Zooey Deschanel) and a bit of a subplot involving the surprisingly cutthroat world of children’s book publishing, but it’s really driven by one question: Can Buddy find a home?

It’s a Perfect New York Movie.

There are as many films set in New York City as there are about Christmas, and yet “Elf” finds a way to be fresh here, too. Classic locations such as the Rockefeller Center skating rink and the Empire State Building have never looked better, and Ferrell pokes happily at odd city traditions, like how there’s a coffee shop on nearly every corner bragging without evidence about its world-class joe. “You did it! Congratulations!” Buddy says, barging into a diner. “World’s Best Cup of Coffee! Great job everybody!”

These are not Scorsese’s mean streets—this is the soaring, escapist Gotham of the Gershwins, Cole Porter and “Friends,” where a department store can be a wonderland and even a stroll through a traffic-packed tunnel seems like a good idea. Just remember, as Buddy learns: Watch out for those menacing yellow taxis, and on your way to town, don’t give a raccoon a hug.

“Elf” is Ferrell’s film, definitively. “Without Will, we wouldn’t be on the phone right now,” Berenbaum says. And there are terrific performances throughout the movie from Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Amy Sedaris, Andy Richter, Faizon Love and “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage. Bob Newhart is deadpan perfect as Buddy’s adoptive father. Ed Asner roars as a gruff Santa. Billingsley of “A Christmas Story,” a longtime friend of Favreau, even pops up as a workshop elf.

But its most inspired act of casting is James Caan as Buddy’s long-lost father. Caan, who died in 2022, is best remembered for playing heavies like Sonny Corleone, but he’s an underrated comic foil, and he’s delightful here as the straight man ricocheting off Ferrell’s absurd performance. He’s the stand-in for all the holiday Scrooges—the designated cold heart to be turned fireplace warm by the movie’s end. (Caan famously didn’t understand Ferrell’s manic energy during filming, and Ferrell is said to have gifted Caan at the end of filming with a set of the “Godfather” trilogy, with a note: The first one is a little bit slow, but the second two are really good.)

They Never Made a Sequel.

There’s an unwritten rule for all Hollywood hits: Why make a sequel when you can make six more? The theaters have long been chockablock with Part IIIs and Part IVs, and here “Elf” remains a notable anomaly: a beloved megahit that’s never had a follow-up. It’s not for lack of trying—Berenbaum says sequels have been proposed now and again. Twenty years out, however, it’s undeniable that part of the movie’s appeal is that it hasn’t been commodified to death. The public would be far more fatigued by “Elf” if we had experienced “Elf 5,” to say nothing of prequels and reimaginings. Instead there’s just one, a gem unblemished by rip-offs and duplicates and not a sad spinoff called “Elf Halloween in 3-D” in which Ferrell and Deschanel manage a haunted bed-and-breakfast in Vermont.

You Can Enjoy “Elf” in July.

Christmas by a fireplace is best, don’t get me wrong. But you can love it in summer, too. Out on the porch in the humid air, with a tall glass of lemonade and a plate full of candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup. Mmmm, so good.

Jason Gay is a sports and humor columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of “I Wouldn’t Do That if I Were Me: Modern Blunders and Modest Triumphs (but Mostly Blunders).”

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