I must have been dead in 2003. Or maybe I was using my fake ID at hookah bars on Avenue A or something, because I didn’t see Elf until college. And that was confusing to me, because I’m a cheesy-Christmas-movie addict.
When I watch The Santa Clause (every time it’s on basic cable), I obsess over how Tim Allen morphs into Santa so intensely that I then watch this creepy ‘Tim Allen Is Changing’ YouTube video on repeat. I sob ridiculously at the end of Home Alone when Kevin hears his mom on Christmas morning and runs downstairs and she’s not there, but then wait, he turns the corner and omg omg! Jingle All the Way? Oh yeah, every year. Shamefully, I’ve watched Bad Santa more than once.
(P.S. I’m Jewish.)
On the most wintry of Syracuse Sundays seven years ago, my friends decided (against my will) that it was time She’s the Man exit our DVD player (R.I.P. semi-sane Amanda Bynes). And so we popped in Elf. There he was: Will Ferrell, in all his green-suited glory, departing the North Pole on a floating sheet of ice. Mr. Narwhal, the unicorn-whale (?!?!), shot up to say goodbye to his dear friend: “Bye Buddy. Hope you find your dad!” That clinched it. I knew right then: Elf is the ultimate light-hearted Christmas movie. Ten years later, the fact remains. Elf is pegged as a Christmas movie, but it hardly feels religious. (And anyway, Buddy could be Jewish—he was an orphan, after all—but I won’t go there today.) At its core, director Jon Favreau’s masterpiece is about being different and not caring about what others think. It’s a reminder to smile constantly, because why the heck not, and that syrup is not only an everyday option, but a dietary necessity. Most importantly, it’s about knowing when to gracefully remove yourself from a revolving door before it’s too late and that spraying perfume and stuffing cotton balls into your mouth is never a good idea. (Tip: it won’t kill you).
For those who have yet to watch Elf, no you are not forgiven, but here’s the gist: Buddy is too big to make Christmas toys—the highest honor for an elf at the North Pole. Buddy’s elf father-figure tells him the truth: he was an orphan and the elf community adopted him, and now he must leave because he literally does not fit in anymore. But good news! He has a real dad, and there’s even a photo to prove it.
The elves send Buddy off on an adventure to big, bad New York City to meet his family and start a new life. Only there are obstacles: His dad wants nothing to do with him, he hasn’t learned to stay clear of yellow snow, the Santa he meets at a department store isn’t actually Santa, he falls for a blonde, bangless Zooey Deschanel who is creeped out by his cheeriness, and he gets attacked by a raccoon who wants zero part of his hug.
Side note: Remember pre-New Girl, pre-Siri commercial Zooey Deschanel? She was the best. In Elf, she wasn’t worrying about cheap laughs when she sang “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in the department store shower. (Also, why was she showering in a department store?) It was before she started walking around making weird facial expressions and awkward movements for New Girl. Before she started paying attention to her quirky manicures on the rep carpet and asking her phone if it’s raining. Oh, what I would do to go back to an Almost Famous Zooey. Alas.
Anyway, back in NYC, things take a miraculous turn for Buddy. His new family warms up to him after he fights off his now-brother’s school bullies with torpedo snowballs. He discovers the world’s best cup of coffee, and learns the wonders of the name Francisco. (Go ahead, say it a few times.) He even goes on a date after spurting out the best pickup line in existence: “I think you’re really beautiful and I feel really warm when I’m around you and my tongue swells up. So… do you wanna eat food?”
All the while, Buddy never changes who he is. He doesn’t care that he looks like a creepy pedophile dressed in an elf costume who smiles at strangers all day. And why should he? He justifies that “I just like to smile, smiling’s my favorite!” It doesn’t bother him that New Yorkers walk around barking orders with their heads down; he’ll just keep on singing in an off-pitch tone because “the best way to spread Christmas Cheer, is singing loud for all to hear.” He has no problem calling fake-Santa out on his bullshit: “You sit on a throne of lies. You smell like beef and cheese, you don’t smell like Santa.”
You don’t need to celebrate Christmas to appreciate Buddy’s journey. He came to New York without one pal, and in the end, was loved by a new family and a ladyfriend. It wasn’t the incredible paper snowflakes that got him there (though no doubt they helped), but his contagious optimism.
And sure there are presents wrapped in sparkly paper and an ornamented tree thrown somewhere into the 97 minutes, but that isn’t what makes Elf a movie worth re-watching every year (or month, whatever).
For 19 years, I thought candy shouldn’t be eaten every day (wrong!) I didn’t know which Ray’s pizza was the Ray’s Pizza. And I never thought to listen to my heartbeat on my finger.
Clearly, I was barely living.