Why We Still Love “Elf,” 20 Years Later

I don’t remember the first time I watched “Elf.” I do not think this is uncommon. Often, the most beloved Christmas movies are those that play on TV the most often, and “Elf” is certainly a cable staple. But that’s not the real reason it’s one of the best Christmas movies of all time. “Elf” is a magical mixture of earnestness and silliness, New York City and the North Pole, and a bunch of actors who give their massive talents to make a classic, eminently lovable film.

“Elf” was released 20 years ago, on Nov. 7, 2003. Directed by Jon Favreau and written by David Berenbaum, it tells the story of Buddy the elf, who is in fact not an elf at all but a human. Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, and it’s one of his best performances. Ferrell often plays characters who aren’t as smart as everyone else, but here, he does that without the cynicism and darkness that some of his other roles have. He’s not making fun of Buddy. Buddy just is who he is – a silly guy, but also someone who’s ready to grasp all of what being human entails with an infinite heart that he wants to share with everyone in the world, from kids he meets in the doctor’s office to his grisly mailroom coworkers.

“Elf” is very earnest, but it avoids true schmaltz.

But the supporting cast of “Elf” is just as great. Perhaps most notable is the late James Caan as Buddy’s workaholic dad, Walter. Caan and Ferrell are perfectly matched as they trade shots back and worth. And when, on Christmas Eve, Walter finally joins in singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” your heart soars right along with Santa’s sleigh. But then that character wouldn’t work without Mary Steenburgen as his wife, Emily, who reacts to Buddy’s arrival not with anger or confusion but with joy. To have another son is a blessing, even if he’s the weirdest son anyone could have gotten. Then there’s Michael, Buddy’s brother, played by Daniel Tay, who avoids all the traps of “precocious kid in a movie” and ends up being his brother’s perfect sidekick.

Zooey Deschanel – before “500 Days of Summer” and “New Girl” – is Jovie, a slightly depressive retail worker who yearns for something better but can’t see it clearly yet. She and Buddy are sweet together (without falling into creepy tropes the way movies like “Big” do), and he brings out the best in her. Faizon Love is absolutely hilarious as Gimbels manager Wanda, ruling over Santaland with an iron fist (and not a lot of patience). The late Ed Asner brings it all together as the platonic ideal of Santa Claus. He is warm and loving but also sharp and funny.

“Elf” is very earnest, but it avoids true schmaltz because it has the heart of New York City right inside it. Midtown really feels like Midtown (complete with mediocre diners), and Michael – in his giant coat and oversize Jets jersey – feels like a real New York City kid. Buddy and his journey are an antidote to New York cynicism wherever it’s found (even broadcasting on NY1), and he’s a reminder that even in a dirty, cold, tourist-stuffed, overpriced city (I say as a lifelong resident), there’s still love and joy and Christmas magic to be found.

“Elf,” like a lot of Christmas classics, has been meme-ified. I used to own a sweatshirt with a narwhal that said, “Bye Buddy, hope you find your dad,” and thanks to TikTok Shop, my FYP has been suggesting similar sweatshirt purchases to me since Halloween ended. “Elf” is getting a special product push for its anniversary this year, which includes a pair of “Elf” Crocs. As an “Elf”-head, I ended up clicking on all these things, but none of them came close to the magic of the movie itself. There is something ineffable about “Elf” that can’t be captured in a mug or coaster or slogan, because “Elf” is more than the sum of its most famous quotes and images. It’s heart and joy and wonder; John Debney’s wonderful score perfectly captures this gorgeous, nostalgic feeling of love and excitement.

I do remember the first time I made my mom watch “Elf.” We were making a special Christmas Chex Mix that we try to make every year. Buddy would like it, because it’s mostly corn syrup and brown sugar. And I put on “Elf,” which my mom didn’t want to watch.

But then, she loved it. Now she wants to watch it every year. And it always takes me back to the kitchen in the house where I grew up that we don’t live in anymore, making delicious Chex Mix, smiling and laughing over this movie. Christmas movies are only as special as the people we share them with, and the messy, weird community in “Elf” has something for everyone.

“Elf” is streaming now on Max.

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