20 years ago, a seemingly-unremarkable Will Ferrell comedy was released
The next summer, Anchorman would make him arguably the biggest comedy leading man of the 2000s. But back in November 2003 when Elf first hit cinemas, he was still mostly known for his impressions of George W Bush on Saturday Night Live and supporting roles in Zoolander and Old School.
Like a lot of movies used to establish a TV comedian as a bankable big screen star, Elf gave Ferrell a wacky high-concept role. In the same way as Jim Carrey was a detective who exclusively finds pets and Adam Sandler was an angry golfer, Ferrell took on the role of a regular human raised by Santa’s elves in the North Pole.
It was fairly well received on first release. Reviews were solid, especially for a comedy starring an SNL star, and it made a respectable $173.4 million from a $33 million budget. But it didn’t top the box office – losing out to that cinematic titan, The Matrix Revolutions – and a proposed sequel Elf 2: Buddy Saves Christmas never materialised.
For a while, it was just another Christmas movie.
But fast forward twenty years and Elf is an acknowledged Christmas classic. Unofficial “Santa! I know him!” Xmas jumpers clutter Etsy and Amazon listings. The DVD sits as a perennial stocking filler at supermarket checkouts throughout the festive period. And for many, Christmas doesn’t start until they watch the film.
London’s Prince Charles Cinema, known for its revivals and sing-along shows, is just one of many cinemas that show the movie every December. The Prince Charles screenings are preceded by a ‘pre-show’, hosted by cinema staff dressed as Santa and his elves, and involve audience members being pulled on stage to take part in a maple syrup and candy-topped spaghetti-eating contest.
The showings are billed as “Quote Along”, with the audience encouraged to shout their favourite lines of dialogue out loud along with Ferrell and co. During a showing, famous quotes pop up on-screen to prompt the crowd, but they scarcely need them – nearly everyone here already knows the film by heart.
“In 2011 we ran a Muppet Christmas Carol and Elf double bill. It ended up being the most popular double bill that year, which took us by surprise,” Head of Programming at the PCC, Paul Vickery, told JOE. “The following year the decision was made to start to widen the Christmas programme due to it being so popular.
“From then on its popularity has only gone from strength to strength – it’s now one of the highest grossing films we show every year.”
Notably, the audience at the evening screening is mostly attended by people in their 20s and 30s who grew up with the film.
Vickery says the film draws a wide age range across its showings. “Our screenings tend to have more kids than any other film we show, and when you look at the audience it’s people from 6 years up to 70 enjoying it,” he says.
“I guess we all have a bit of Buddy’s wide-eyes wonder and silliness in us, which makes him such a fun character to spend time with.”
The film’s influence has spread further than just the cinema screen as well. In 2010 a stage musical adaptation of Elf opened at the Al Hirschfield Theatre on Broadway, for a limited holiday run. It broke records for the venue, taking over a million dollars in a week. It was followed by another Broadway run two years later, along with regular festive US tours, and a West End production starring Girls Aloud’s Kimberly Walsh.
Not only that, it would then jump back to the screen, when in 2014 NBC aired a stop-motion animated adaptation of the stage show, with a voice cast that included The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parson, and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill.
Elf is now officially part of the Christmas furniture, something we dig out of the loft with the decorations and fairy lights.
It is hard to pinpoint one exact element that unites the films we consider ‘classics’, apart from them being set around the season. We love It’s A Wonderful Life for it’s pathos. We love Home Alone for its anarchy. We love Die Hard for its action, and Gremlins for its subversiveness. Films don’t even need to be good to become beloved – god knows Jingle All The Way isn’t.
It definitely helps Elf’s lasting appeal that it includes a lot of names that would go on to big things.
Of course, Ferrell would cement his place as a comedy superstar in Anchorman and Step Brothers. But it also features Zooey Deschanel on the cusp of becoming an indie starlet, years before being the star of New Girl and a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage.
Director Jon Faverau, then still best known for indie-bro hit Swingers, would go on to direct Iron Man, and in turn change the Hollywood landscape forever.
Christmas classics are also often made from repetition, and several flops have become canon through repeated TV showings.
It’s A Wonderful Life bombed on first release, but confusion over its copyright status lead to it becoming a cheap TV staple, where it was rightly rediscovered. Another example is 1983’s A Christmas Story, which did little in theatres but became a beloved classic in the US.
Elf doesn’t have exactly the same story as either of those, but it has become a staple of festive TV for many millennials, something familiar to have on in the background while wrapping presents or decorating.
The main reason it continues to resonate, though, is that at its heart it is about a naive but good-hearted person who makes a cynical and complicated world a better place.
The fish out of water comedy is simple, but it works, with Buddy taking everything at face value, like a sign proclaiming “World Greatest Coffee” or expecting the real Santa to turn up to a department store. The lead is just so lovable – this is a movie where he sneaks up on Zooey Deschanel in the shower and accidentally exposes himself to Mary Nell Steenburgen, but he never seems creepy.
The film’s message is that being a decent person and doing the right thing can change the world. In real life, that’s might be hopelessly naive, but Elf isn’t real life. Christmas is a time that’s often far from perfect but still, the idea exists that if we can all come together with goodwill, something magical can happen.
It might not be true always, but Buddy personifies that idea and that’s why it’ll remain a festive staple for years more to come.