Why ‘Elf’ is a Terrible Christmas Movie

Written for Acculturated

December 20th, 2017

I hold a lot of controversial pop culture opinions. I think Friends is unfunny, Beyoncé is vastly overrated, and The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars installment. I am completely prepared to defend every one of these views—come at me Star Wars nerds, I dare you—but my thoughts on pop culture rarely have an impact on my day-to-day life. Until, that is, Christmas season. For I hold a Christmas movie opinion that many find simply indefensible, an opinion that can lead to debates as fiery as the Heat Miser’s breath and as cold as a hug from Frosty the Snowman. I think Elf is bad.

A large reason I dislike the Will Ferrell holiday flick is admittedly subjective. I’ve always thought that the movie feels like a holiday Hallmark production that was inexplicably given a multimillion dollar budget. While I am willing to admit that it may just be my personal tastes that prevent me from liking the script’s broad humor and Ferrell’s hammy, over-the-top performance, I am adamant in my belief that Elf should not be considered a Christmas classic. My reason is, quite simply, that it doesn’t actually celebrate Christmas.

This is not an argument I make from a religious perspective. I’m not taking offense over the lack of Christianity in the film or the secularization and commercialization of the holiday, though all of those are true. Elf just fails to give any sort of explanation for why Christmas is special, lacking even the kind of virtuous message found in other secular Christmas classics: for example, how Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town teaches generosity or how Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! teaches that togetherness is more important than the material presents typically associated with the holiday. Instead, Elf parodies elements of classic Christmas movies, particularly Miracle on 34th Street.

The main character is from the North Pole, though nobody believes him, and works as a mall elf while trying to convince a family that’s lost the Christmas spirit to believe in it again. Miracle on 34th Street is a nuanced film, an examination of faith and what it means to believe. Its characters are realistic and grounded, which, considering the fact that one of them claims to be Santa Claus, is quite an accomplishment. Even Kris Kringle himself is normal, a pleasant fellow who also just happens to either be or think he is jolly old Saint Nick. The ending is even left ambiguous, reminding audiences that faith sometimes means believing without ever truly knowing.

Compare that to Elf. Ferrell plays Buddy as naïve to the point of disbelief, making the movie seem like some bizarre Christmas version of Dumb and Dumber. The argument that Buddy is merely unfamiliar with non-elf culture doesn’t hold water either, as his obnoxious behaviorisms are not shared by his fellow elves. We are meant to sympathize with him as the world of humans doesn’t accept him and questions his sanity, but if anyone met Buddy in real life they’d react exactly like many of the characters in the movie do: badly. This lack of subtlety goes beyond the humor and acting, ruining the message about the importance of family that the movie could have emphasized. Buddy is only believed and the Christmas spirit only restored when definitive proof of Santa Claus is given, courtesy of his sleigh crashing in Central Park.

So this Christmas season, when you’re curled up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand and surrounded by family, turn on a Christmas movie that is earnest in its message—maybe something like The Bishop’s Wife—instead of Elf. The best films spread Christmas cheer by extolling virtue and being sincere.