The holidays are upon us, and the imaginary stocking I hang by the When Can I Watch fireplace has been filling up with inquiries from parents hoping to watch Christmas classics with their kids.
Without question, the two films brought up most often by curious moms and dads have been Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story
and Jon Favreau’s Elf
. Totally understandable. Story
is a bona fide holiday staple, a feature so ingrained in our culture that TBS dedicates a full 24 hours of programming to running it on a loop beginning Christmas Eve. That one’s relatively safe, though if you want to discuss specifics, e-mail or hit me up on Twitter.
Elf, on the other hand, raises eyebrows with parents who know Ferrell from his SNL days or the lewd comedies he has released over the years. It’s unfortunate, because Elf is something special, and it should be as much a holiday tradition around your house as decorating a tree or exchanging gifts. I’ll attempt to explain why in the following sections.
So, let’s pour maple syrup on our spaghetti, push all of the elevator buttons, sing a duet with Zooey Deschanel as she showers, and figure out when you can watch Jon Favreau’s Elf with your kids.
Red Flags: “You stink. You smell like beef and cheese. You don’t smell like Santa.”
One reader wondering about Elf asked in an e-mail if it was “too Old School for my kids?”
Great question. If you, as a parent, haven’t see Favreau’s comedy yet, I can understand the concern. When Ferrell donned the sunshine-yellow tights and pointy green hat to play Buddy the elf in 2003, he was coming off of supporting turns in The Ladies Man and Zoolander, as well as a starring role in the frat-house classic Old School. Ferrell had established a career playing simpletons with short tempers, and Favreau, at that point, had only directed the surly, organized-crime comedy Made.
Elf, however, lies on the opposite end of Ferrell’s character spectrum. Buddy is the same simpleton we’ll eventually see in Anchorman or Talladega Nights, only without Ferrell’s signature mean streak. The closest Elf gets to Ferrell’s rude humor is the longest burp in Hollywood history … and it’s flat-out hilarious.
Ferrell’s Buddy is the embodiment of pure joy, a wide-eyed son of a nutcracker who only sees the good in … well, in everything. He routinely meets cynicism with optimism. He even tries to hug the rabid raccoon that hisses at him. Now that’s dedication.
That’s not to say Elf is without obstacle. Buddy takes a brief detour to prison after initiating a fistfight with a false storeroom Santa, where he’s surrounded by some hardened criminals. His finger’s pricked by a helpful doctor (director cameo) as his dad tries to test the legitimacy of his paternity claim.
David Berenbaum's script also dabbles in the secret-of-Santa discussion that was raised by a When Can I Watch reader back when we reviewed Gremlins
(of all films). Hollywood can’t do Christmas movies without spoiling Santa’s secret. And while Elf
glides by on Buddy’s extreme faith in jolly old St. Nick (Ed Asner), multiple characters -- from Buddy’s elf parent (Bob Newhart) to his biological father (James Caan) -- reference the fact that parents might, in fact, be Santa.
Then again, the bulk of Elf – including the closing scenes – hinges on our collective belief in the existence of Santa, so the movie ends on a warmhearted note of holiday faith and seasonal glee. In fact, that immeasurable Christmas cheer infuses every scene of Elf, which we’ll expound on in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: “You’re not a cotton-headed ninny muggins. You’re just special.”
Enthusiasm is Ferrell’s secret weapon as a comedian. Not just in Elf, in his full body of work. Few actors “commit to the bit” quite the way he does, whether he’s playing a washed up ABA basketball player in Semi-Pro or a competitive figure skater in Blades of Glory.
Usually there’s a sarcastic edge to his comedy. Elf has none.
Buddy is an inspired creation, an endless, bubbling well of happiness and kindness that Ferrell powers with a ceaseless grin. Transitioning Buddy from the North Pole to New York City quite literally is like unleashing a kid in a candy store, and Elf rarely runs out of ways to tap into the crazed gusto Ferrell brings to the role.
As a result, Favreau’s holiday comedy ends up being as sweet as a candy cane, and as kind and gentle as the claymation animals who bid Buddy farewell before he embarks on his Manhattan adventure. The romantic subplot with disgruntled department store elf Jovie (Who’s that girl? It’s Jess!) isn’t overdone, because Ferrell and Deschanel combine to weave the cinematic equivalent of a cup of hot cocoa served before a medium-sized campfire.
And the physical comedy, which could have been silly, is smarter than expected. My sons loved the snowball fight in Central Park, and Ferrell tackling a Christmas tree as he tries to get the star on top. It’s occasionally vulgar enough to appeal to the kids who will be watching with their parents (the aforementioned belch), but never overwhelming enough to turn off gathered families.
Dig deeper into Elf and you’ll find worthy subplots about figuring out your special talent. But the best part of Elf is that it’s overflowing with Christmas spirit. It boasts a contagious holiday enthusiasm that could – and literally does – power Santa’s sleigh on the magical night. All is merry and bright.
And that’s why Elf is appropriate for virtually every member of the family. I think the harshest word used is “suck.” There’s a questionable visual gag about Buddy giving his dad sexy lingerie because he doesn’t understand a sign in a store. And parents might want to dance around that pesky “parents might be Santa” conversation (but it’s subtle, and my kids hardly picked up on it).
Elf is good enough for kids age 6 and up. My 7-year-old son loves Buddy. My 3-year-old son laughed at the physical comedy but hasn’t picked up the bulk of the jokes. He does want to put syrup on every food item as a result of watching it, however, so he’s definitely absorbing what he’s seeing.
Elf belongs on every family’s holiday watch list. It’s right up there with the classic claymation TV shows featuring Rudolph, Frosty and young Santa Claus (voiced by Mickey Rooney). Share it with your kids this holiday season, and let me know how they like it.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Spy Kids, to name just a few.