Just as grown-ups frequently pine for their youth, kids are often desperate to cast off their adolescence in favor of adulthood—not realizing that with advanced age comes enhanced responsibilities. That life lesson is learned the hard way by the protagonist of Elves, a six-part Danish horror saga that concerns a family’s vacation to a remote island populated by wary locals and, more menacing still, by mythic creatures. It’s a hermetic community that abides by a unique set of rules designed to keep those beasts at bay, although in Stefan Jaworski’s series, real trouble arises not from irrational monsters but, rather, from a kid thinking she’s mature and therefore repeatedly behaving dumbly.
It’s difficult to overstate the aggravation generated by Elves’ Josefine (Sonja Sofie Engberg Steen), who along with her mother Charlotte (Lila Nobel), dad Mads (Peder Thomas Pedersen), and older brother Kasper (Milo Campanale) ventures from Copenhagen to the misty island of Årmandsø for Christmas. Josefine is introduced befriending a dog at a convenience store and then pouting when she’s told, for the umpteenth time, that she’s not old enough to have a pet of her own. This is a wholly typical pre-teen attitude for Josefine to have. She takes it to another level, however, when the family arrives in Årmandsø and, as she and Kasper bicker in the backseat, their car runs over something in the middle of a heavily forested road. They discover black goo on the vehicle’s bumper, and Josefine spies more of the stuff in the adjacent field that leads to an electrified fence. Yet before she can investigate further, they’re scared off by burly Møller (Rasmus Hammerich), an Årmandsø resident whom we’ve already seen deposit a chained-up cow in the woods behind the fence.
Josefine and her clan retreat to their log cabin, where mom and dad try to make the most of this getaway from their hectic city lives by constructing Christmas decorations. Josefine, however, has only one thing on her mind: checking out what her dad potentially hit. Thus, she sneaks off to the fence, where she discovers a tiny injured elf whom she brings back to a nearby barn, nurses back to health, and names Kee-Ko. With a pointy head covered in wisps of hair, matching spiky ears, and giant dark eyes, the pint-sized woodland animal looks like a creepier version of a Troll doll, and it swiftly takes to Josefine, who does her best to play mommy to this baby. Josefine’s maternal instincts, alas, far outpace her common sense, and after introducing Kee-Ko to Kasper, the elf is found by Møller and redeposited behind the fence.
As it turns out, Møller works alongside shopkeeper Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen) and her granddaughter Liv (Vivelill Søgaard Holm) as guardians of Årmandsø, which has long been inhabited by the elves, who must be locked away behind the electrified wall lest they overrun and devour the human population. Instead of thinking through any single decision she makes, though, Josefine repeatedly disobeys orders and warnings in order to maintain her relationship with Kee-Ko, since she believes she knows what’s best for him. Unsurprisingly, she does not, and a subsequent rescue mission to recover her pal puts her in mortal danger, resulting in violence that then spawns even more carnage. Before long, Josefine has the blood of numerous innocents on her hands, all because she didn’t realize that—her arrogant worldview to the contrary—she’s an empty-headed kid without the experience and knowledge of her elders.
Consequently, Elves is a Yuletide nightmare about a girl who causes mayhem due to selfishness and stupidity. Worse is that despite Josefine recognizing that she’s to blame for the chaos that’s erupted on Årmandsø, Jaworski’s series strives to acquit her of her wrongdoing, casting her as merely a misguided child driven by honorable intentions. That’s a tough pill to swallow given that she’s solely at fault for the deaths of multiple people who did nothing more than try to maintain the island’s status quo. The show’s interest in exonerating Josefine eventually throws the entire proceedings out of whack, turning them into a sob story when they’re tailor-made to be a cautionary tale about the fact that foolish actions have severe consequences.
If Elves has a wonky perspective on its heroine, it has a similarly clumsy grasp on its terror. The adult elves are a carnivorous bunch whose bodies creak and shudder unnaturally, and whose mouths are filled with enormous fangs. During those few moments when their entire bodies and faces are clearly visible, they look more ridiculous than menacing, resembling slightly angrier versions of Land of the Lost’s Cha-Ka. They’re also slow and avoidable, which additionally neuters their scariness. Jaworski attempts to enhance the nerve-rattling mood by occasionally indulging in some gore—notably, a decapitated head that’s unceremoniously tossed over the fence, and the sight of a person being feasted upon by the elves—but it doesn’t mesh with the otherwise tame tone.
Running less than two-and-a-half hours, Elves doesn’t drag things out interminably. Nonetheless, with some tighter editing, it could have been trimmed down to a fleet feature film. As it stands, the series ambles along without much momentum, thereby calling attention to the fact that its characters are two-dimensional at best, and the dramatic dynamics at play are egregiously uncomplicated. There’s an ecological message lurking somewhere in this man-versus-elves tale, since Karen, Møller and company are convinced that they’re stewards of Mother Earth—which, in turn, posits Josefine and her family as urban interlopers more concerned with their own satisfaction than with respecting their natural environment. Yet time and again, Jaworski can’t be bothered to extrapolate anything novel from that set-up.
Elves’ dearth of suspense, and kid-gloves treatment of Josefine, makes it seem like it’s been fashioned for a particular tween demographic that wants PG-13 gruesomeness and thinks children are the center of the universe (and should suffer no penalties for that attitude, no matter how much damage it wreaks). That audience might find it chilling, but anyone over the age of fifteen may want to look elsewhere for some holiday horror.