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Elf at 20

The modern Christmas classic still delivers humor for all ages.

Will Ferrell in 'Elf.' (Picture via IMDb)

I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.

—Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell)

With a voiceover of Buddy’s expertly etch-a-sketched note to his family and a subsequent shot of him peering over the Queensboro Bridge, the classic Christmas comedy Elf reaches its emotional low point. But even this moment doesn’t pass up the opportunity for an inward chuckle—at least for those of us old enough to remember VCRs.

Elf, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is chock full of lighthearted, quotable lines, so this moment of melancholy—accentuated through the bridge shot, a nod to It’s A Wonderful Life—sticks out. Thematically, however, Buddy’s etch-a-sketch note holds a key aspect of the movie’s enduring appeal: Beneath the abundance of good humor, Elf is a story about belonging. The movie’s ability to explore this theme, with plenty of laughs along the way, is part of why it has met or even surpassed such Christmas comedy staples as Home Alone and Christmas Vacation in the two decades since its release.

We learn early on in the film that Buddy’s father didn’t know he was born, and that his mother gave him up for adoption as an infant before she died. The movie mostly doesn’t dwell on this background, primarily using it as a plot device to get Buddy to the North Pole with Santa and the elves, far away from the human father he has never met. But it sets the stage for the (often silly) social dynamics of the rest of the story. From the moment he begins crawling toward Santa’s sack of toys in the orphanage, Buddy finds himself in places where his presence is amusing precisely because he doesn’t belong.

Take an early scene where Buddy is building toys for next Christmas alongside the elves. Amid the quick clatter of the table, his mallet slowly taps at an etch-a-sketch as a supervisor asks him how many he has finished that day. Apparently, he’s 915 off pace, prompting an awkward workplace discussion about his “special talents.” Soon, Buddy realizes the reason “everyone else has the same talents” except for him: He is not an elf, and this is not the world he was meant to live in.

The North Pole may not be the world Buddy was made for, but it is the world that made him who he is—a person overflowing with genuine joy and enthusiasm (and naivete) rare among most humans. This becomes comically apparent once he arrives in New York City in search of his biological father. Forgetting Santa’s advice, Buddy eats chewed gum off the subway fencing, gullibly congratulates a corner shop on the “world’s best cup of coffee,” and treats revolving doors like a higher form of merry-go-rounds.

But the funniest scenes depicting Buddy’s arrival at the Big Apple happen when he starts singing. First, he ad libs a “Christmas-gram” upon meeting his dad, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a children’s book publisher who has become numb to the concerns of others. A few minutes later, he’s loudly singing about singing in a store in a bid to convince his crush, department-store employee Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), to get over her stage fright.

Buddy is not a good singer, and his songs have neither tune nor rhythm to boast—that’s part of what makes these scenes funny! But they also demonstrate Buddy’s innocence, his goodwill toward others, and in particular his unconditional love for his father. This isn’t just a fish-out-of-water mismatch of social conventions. Buddy’s life has been formed according to a particular code: the Code of the Elves. In fact, the first time we see Buddy as an adult on screen, he is reciting the three points of this code. “Treat every day like Christmas,” “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” and, perhaps the most striking, “there’s room for everyone on the nice list.”

Elf isn’t advancing a particularly sophisticated moral vision—after all, it’s a PG comedy featuring a 12-second burp. But this substantive confrontation between two moral “codes”—the Code of the Elves and the cynical code of busy New York, the code of Buddy who cares about everyone and the code of his father who seems to only care about himself—gives the movie a richer dramatic texture than could be found in the median family-friendly comedy film. Viewers of all ages can get something different out of it, and what they get out of it (beyond shared laughter) can vary from viewing to viewing and year to year.

No one emerges unchanged from the encounter of the two worlds—the North Pole and New York—that meet in Buddy. Walter’s decision, after reconciling with his son and meeting Santa himself, to participate in a singalong of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” proves to be the decisive moment that restores Christmas spirit to a post-9/11 New York that desperately needs it. And Buddy—assured by Santa that he is “more of an elf than anyone [he’s] ever met”—comes to terms with his human identity as well.

These, I suspect, are some of the reasons why Elf continues to strike me as the definitive Christmas comedy, why I think it’s aged impeccably well. But trying to explain jokes is a fool’s errand, so I’ll stop there. Don’t take my musings too seriously, and don’t take my word for it: Give Elf a rewatch (or a first watch!) this Christmas weekend. Twenty years after its release, it still elicits fresh laughter.

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.