There’s been some kerfuffle in Britain this year about Channel 4 losing the rights to show Elf and some genuine upset that this great Christmas film won’t bring the nation together.
This had completely baffled me. I’ve seen Elf. It was sort of OK in bits, but mostly a bit rubbish and in no way a great Christmas movie. A little Will Ferrell goes a long way.
I was going to write a piece slagging it off. But it seemed unfair. It’s been a long time since I saw it, and maybe I needed to look at it again. Maybe it was just me.
So I actually bought the DVD on my way home from work tonight, and I’ve just watched it, and I hate to say it…
It’s not me. It’s you.
I wrote everything from the bit where I say, “THIS IS THE BIT WHERE IT STARTS”, until the bit where I say “I HAVE A HEART OF STONE. THIS FILM IS ABYSMAL”, while I watched the film, and everything else afterwards.
THIS IS THE BIT WHERE IT STARTS…
It starts so well. Bob Newhart is so good and droll as a narrator at the beginning. The titles are just like a 1960s Christmas movie, all story book pages and charming animation.
And then it falls off a cliff.
First we have Ed Asner as Father Christmas, who leaves his sack unattended in an orphanage and fails to see a baby crawling inside. Asner is looking positively sinister. It’s hard enough anyway to sell the idea of a sort of benevolent burglar who slides down your chimney, creeps around your living room, and eats your food to kids without this sort of nonsense. I don’t want a sinister Santa, unless he’s Billy Bob Thornton.
We go back to the North Pole, to find elves dancing like Irish people in Titanic. And then Buddy the baby crawls out of the sack.
So Santa Claus abducted a baby and then decided to give it to an elf? That’s pretty dark stuff. I mean, yes, initially it was by accident, but if I find a child in the back of my car I don’t get to take it home with me and hand it to one of my slaves to raise.
And this is Father Christmas. One of the things we know about Father Christmas is that he knows where every child lives. He knows where that baby should be. It’s not up to him to second-guess the local adoption authorities.
And I’ll tell you this, that child would be better off with human parents, where he’ll fit in, instead of living like a freakish giant. What with this and the exploitation of Rudolph, lovable old Father Christmas is starting to look like a terrible sod.
Now the first clanger. Newhart the Elf has just told Buddy (Will Ferrell) that some kids don’t believe in Santa Claus. This is a massively stupid move. It’s fine for a movie aimed just at adults (not an “adult” movie – that would be obscene), but young kids are watching this. This is like that John Lewis ad where they showed parents hiding toys in the attic. This is not the place to open up a few cracks in children’s innocence. Leave that to the little bleeders in school.
And speaking of innocence, Will Ferrell is supposed to look guilelessly innocent. He does not. He looks creepy. Even if he had the correct CRB documentation, I wouldn’t let him within 50 feet of my children.
Anyway, back to the story, Buddy overhears some elves talking about how slow and useless he is and discovers he is a human, and not an elf. It is comparable with the great Steve Martin scene in The Jerk where he discovers that he’s been adopted by a black family and that he’s always going to stay white. And the comparison is this: that was funny and this is not.
And now the killer. Newhart the Elf tells Buddy all about his life and how his mother put him up for adoption and then died, hands him a photo of the deadbeat dad who knocked his mother up, and then tells him where his dad works.
THEY’VE KNOWN THIS STUFF ALL ALONG. That is what the Americans call a “dick move”.
It’s OK, though, because Santa tells Buddy his dad is on the Naughty List, and maybe now he needs someone to show him some Christmas spirit to redeem him. YEAH, SANTA, OR MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE GIVEN HIM HIS OWN CHILD THIRTY YEARS AGO AND HE’D HAVE BECOME A DECENT HUMAN BEING AT THAT POINT.
So Buddy then has to walk from the North Pole to New York. Bear in mind that Santa Claus has a method of transportation which can criss cross the globe in one night, dropping presents off at most Christian family homes and some Jewish homes where they don’t keep kosher. He could have put the kettle on, dropped Buddy in New York, and been back before it had boiled. Santa Claus is a total swine in this film.
Finally, an unqualified success. Buddy the Elf wandering around New York. I see what they’re doing now. This is going to be a great adult comedy, a satire on selfishness and consumerism. It’s not for children after all.
He’s met his father (James Caan), who does some sort of job where he has to upset nuns, and who doesn’t believe he’s his son, and now he’s wandering around a department store.
Oh, God, I think this slapstick is actually aimed at children, but the tone is all over the place. There’s even a joke about porno cinemas (“Mummy, what’s a peep show”).
Buddy has just met Zooey Deschanel. She is clearly going to be the love interest, although she is about 15 years younger than him.
Ugh, she is in the shower, while he’s sitting in the bathroom. It’s meant to be sweet, but it’s CREEPY.
Another funny scene, where Buddy confronts the store Santa, and exposes him as a fake in a scuffle. But then again, AT WHOM IS THIS FILM AIMED? Is it children? Then don’t let them see behind the curtain. If a child questions the existence of Santa because of this film, or works out that the Father Christmas in the local department store isn’t real, then it’s appalling and, probably, counter-productive.
After the scuffle, James Caan bails Buddy out of prison, does a DNA test, and takes him to meet his wife and other son. At this point, Buddy explains about the four major food groups – candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup. I am going to come back to this later and you are going to think about how clever I am. He captivates the wife, because this is a film and not real life. In real life, the wife would wave goodbye to Buddy and tell the father he is never to bring that freak into the house again.
James Caan’s boss just told him to do a job on Christmas Eve, and he’s said that’s OK. I reckon that’ll be important later.
Buddy takes part in a snowball fight with his half-brother and then finds out what a terrible man his dad really is. Apparently he works really hard. That is what a terrible man is in this film.
The half-brother tells Buddy to ask Zooey Deschanel out and Zooey Deschanel says yes, even though Buddy is the shower-room pervert and wears tights, so she can probably see EVERYTHING. This is the most ridiculous thing about the whole film. Zooey Deschanel could have her pick because she is Zooey Deschanel.
Buddy gets dressed in normal man clothes to visit his dad in his office and finds out what his dad does for a living – it turns out it’s something to do with children’s books. Children’s books and nun disappointing. This is really clever irony, because he’s actually terrible with children.
I’ve been hoping that at some point Buddy is going to stop being really irritating, but it’s not going to happen, is it? This is for two reasons:
1) Because he is cloying and juvenile and has a high-pitched voice which goes through me.
2) Because he is played by Will Ferrell. Will Ferrell is like Marmite. A brown smear.
Zooey Deschanel goes on a montage with Buddy, and finds him charming. Everything is great for Buddy, but then he turns up at a meeting on Christmas Eve by his father, insults a dwarf by calling him an elf, and is disowned, just in time for the end of the second act.
Buddy runs away. His half-brother goes across town to his father’s office, and walks into a pitch meeting his father is giving to his own boss just to tell him his 30-year-old adult son has gone missing.
The boss is all, “Look, kid, you’ll have to wait five minutes. I’ve just flown here on Christmas Eve to hear this stuff.”
And this leads James Caan to quit his job – ON CHRISTMAS EVE – for the sake of five minutes. Because nothing tells your family you love them more than making yourself voluntarily unemployed from your well-paid job ON CHRISTMAS FLIPPING EVE.
Buddy ends up on a bridge, staring out at the sky, just like Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life, while James Caan and the boy sort of wander about the place looking for him, until he spots Santa’s sleigh in trouble.
Buddy finds Santa, whose engine has fallen off his sleigh. It turns out there’s just no Christmas spirit any more, and Christmas spirit is what powers his sleigh. This is all well and good, but he’s got at least eight reindeer tethered to the front of his sleigh. If Christmas spirit is what powers the sleigh, why does he need the reindeer? This makes absolutely no sense.
In fact, I’m starting to think that this entire film is the brainchild of Richard Dawkins and his ceaseless efforts to prevent children from having any sort of imagination.
For example, a crowd and media descend on Central Park, where the sleigh has crash landed. And the TV reporter is chuckling at the idea that it might be Santa. I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS AT ALL. This is a world in which Father Christmas delivers presents. Why do adults not believe in him? Where do they think the presents come from?
Anyway, coincidentally, Buddy and his father and brother find the engine at the same time, and have an emotional reunion, which given he’s only been missing three minutes seems a bit excessive. I have longer toilet breaks in work and I don’t even get a sarcastic round of applause when I return.
Santa tells them they need more Christmas spirit, so some stuff happens and there are all sorts of coincidences and, to build up this spirit, Zooey Deschanel makes everybody sing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, which is silly, as it’s been established that he’s already there, but there you go. And Buddy’s family join in, followed by the rest of the crowd, and eventually ALL OF NEW YORK, even the atheists and the Muslims, presumably. But only one person isn’t singing.
That’s right, it’s James Caan. But when he sings the sleigh flies properly and that’s all it needed. And all the children get their presents. But only one each, according to Santa’s book.
Then Zooey Deschanel and Buddy spend Christmas Day with James Caan and his family and she sings Auld Lang Syne, for some unaccountable reason. Maybe she’s rehearsing for the following week, I don’t know.
And then Newhart the Elf comes back and tells us how they all lived happily ever after, and you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved.
I HAVE A HEART OF STONE. THIS FILM IS ABYSMAL.
It has the rigid journey of a sat nav and the emotional heft of a Steven Moffat Doctor Who episode.
And that is because it is so relentlessly sweet, like the four food groups I mentioned earlier. Because a good Christmas film needs grit. You have to earn that happy ending.
Look at A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a monster. But he’s laid low by the four ghosts, utterly destroyed, so that when he’s redeemed it means something, it has weight.
Look at It’s A Wonderful Life. When George Bailey is on that bridge, he’s suicidal. It’s jet black. His life has failed. His business has failed. Mr Potter is going to destroy his town.
That syrupy ending, where the people of Bedford Falls come to his aid, and he has his family about him is earned. It means something.
But when Buddy the elf is on his bridge, it means nothing. He’s been rejected by a man he didn’t even know existed until about three days before. He’s still got a dad who loves him in the North Pole. Boo-flipping-hoo. He’s only been missing half an hour.
I’m not saying it’s the worst Christmas film ever. Clearly it isn’t. That’s Home Alone 2, which is the movie equivalent of being given exactly the same present two years on the trot.
But it is not a great Christmas film. If you gave a computer a copy of Screenplay by Syd Field, a picture of a gurning Will Ferrell, a book of fart jokes, and the Phil Spector Christmas album, it would come up with exactly the same script as Elf.
It’s by-the-numbers, cod-sentimental, cynical-yet-syrupy guff. And I’m GLAD it’s not on Channel 4 this weekend. Watch a good Christmas film instead.