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For years, “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” cozied up in the top spots as folks’ favorite merry-time movies. And then, in 2003, an elf in yellow leggings and a penchant for maple syrup on spaghetti skipped across our screens and stole our nice-list hearts.
“Elf,” starring Will Ferrell as the ingenuous sprite, was an immediate hit when it debuted in theaters 20 holiday seasons ago and achieved cult-classic status once streaming became a thing. It’s often ranked as the most popular Christmas movie ever made and has been adapted into a musical, animated special, video game and live-music concert such as the performances with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Bradley Symphony Center on Friday, Nov. 24 through Sunday, Nov. 26.
In case you’ve dozed off during the film after a couple of eggnogs, “Elf” tells the tale of Buddy the Elf who gets accidentally delivered to the North Pole as a baby, is raised by elves as an elf – a very tall elf – and eventually decides to embark on a journey to modern-day New York City in search of his biological, non-elfin father who denies his paternity and presumes Buddy is nutcrackers.
Despite thousands of Christmas movies to choose from – Hallmark alone has churned out more than 300 holiday films – what in the cotton-ball-eating, revolving-door-loving world makes Elf so popular? Well, this proud Cotton-Headed Ninnymuggin has a few thoughts.
1. The language
David Berenbaum isn’t a household name like Will Ferrell, but as the film’s screenwriter, he’s the guy who penned the lines that make “Elf” a ridiculously quotable movie and meme-maker. If some of us had a peppermint drop for every time we said “Smiling is my favorite” and “Does somebody need a hug?” we’d have stocking stuffers for the rest of eternity. Die-hard fans of the movie enjoy dropping a well-placed “make work your favorite” and “you sit on a throne of lies” and even occasionally answer the phone, “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?”
2. The cast
Ferrell is not only perfectly cast as Buddy the Elf for every second of the 97-minute film – he is Buddy the Elf. And the rest of the cast is equally as idyllic, including Bob Newhart as Papa Elf; Peter Dinklage as the arrogant children’s author ("You must be an South Pole elf"); James Caan as Buddy’s workaholic dad and of course Zooey Deschanel as the jaded-but-yearnful Jovie.
The bit-part characters are equally as enamoring like the “tickle fight!” Mailroom Guy (Mark Acheson) to the endearing little girl (Lydia Lawson-Baird) who Buddy meets in the waiting room of his doctor’s office to the “6-inch ribbon curls, honey” Gimbel’s Manager (Faizon Love).
3. The intersection of earnestness and edge
Buddy’s authentic delight in everything and everyone he encounters is one of the most lovable aspects of the film. For most of the show, his father repels every aspect of Buddy’s existence, and yet Buddy remains optimistic to the possibility of a relationship between the two of them. “I thought maybe we could make gingerbread houses, and eat cookie dough, and go ice skating and maybe even hold hands.” Later, Buddy immediately believes that the sign claiming “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” in the greasy spoon diner as truth ("You did it! Congratulations!"), and without a white beard hair of irony tells his father’s secretary (Amy Sedaris) her face is so pretty it should be on a Christmas card.
At the same time, the film includes enough sass that no one gets a toothache from enduring so much sweetness. “If you see a sign that says ‘Peep Show’ that doesn’t mean they’re letting you look at presents before Christmas,” is Santa’s Big City advice to the innocent Elf when he’s departing the North Pole. And “So, how’d you get here?” Buddy asks the rough-edged Mailroom Guy. “Work release,” he says.
4. The reimagining of classic Christmas films
At first glance, the North Pole scenes in “Elf” replicate quintessential vintage storybook scenarios. Elves work fervently to make enough Jack-in-the-boxes and Etch-a-Sketches under deadline; Santa pours over the Naughty and Nice List. But all of the innocence takes on a flavor of absurdity and hilarity when it’s in the shadow of a 6-foot man-Elf coming to terms with the fact he is miserable at elf-ing. The North Pole scenes are reminiscent of famous stop-motion Christmas specials from the 1960s and 1970s like "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" and "Rudolph The Rednosed Reindeer."
"Elf" even features “Leon the Snowman” (Leon Redbone) who is extremely similar to Rudolph’s "Sam the Snowman" in appearance, yet oh-so-different in personality. “Of course you're not an Elf," Leon says to Buddy. "You’re six-foot-three and had a beard since you were 15.”
5. The message
The messages of Elf become more relevant and dire with each passing year: be kind, know it’s never too late to change, value others and, above all else, stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.
To get tickets to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's family-friendly "Elf In Concert" Nov. 24-26, go here.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.