Three decades ago on one of his Christmas Eve stops at a Catholic orphanage, Santa accidentally acquired one of its infant residents when a baby crawled into his toy sack. Upon realizing the slip-up back at the North Pole, Santa and the elves unanimously decide to keep the boy—especially after the elf manager agrees to adopt him. Named Buddy, this human becomes educated in the elfin skills of toymaking, plus acquires the more important character traits of concern for others, the joy of giving and maintaining a positive outlook. Even as an adult—and despite his size—Buddy remains completely oblivious to his humanness. That is, until one day when he overhears two of his toy-producing colleagues discussing his uniqueness.
Instantly, Buddy knows what he needs to do: find his biological parents. His adoptive dad explains that his mother is no longer living and his biological father never even knew she was pregnant. Handing him a snow globe of a Manhattan landscape, he further informs Buddy that his father works inside the Empire State Building. Armed with enough information to get the job done, it’s off to the big city. However, once arriving, Buddy discovers that his quest is bigger than he bargained for. Manhattan presents numerous obstacles and life lessons never encountered at the North Pole. Escalators. Revolving doors. Taxi cabs. Deceptive advertisers. And romantic attraction.
Elf underscores the importance of family bonding and fatherhood. Even a Burl Ives-like snowman tells Buddy, “At least you had a daddy, I was just rolled up.” Buddy is worth rooting for. He is innocent, caring, compassionate, loving and optimistic—all the while displaying a healthy naiveté. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Buddy’s biological father Walter, a quintessential candidate for Santa’s naughty list. He’s a selfish workaholic who’s not above cutting corners at work. And because he puts everything ahead of family, he hardly seems to notice that his own son (Buddy’s pre-teen half-brother) feels alienated and alone. The last thing Walter wants to hear is that he has another son, so when Buddy drops that bombshell and it’s confirmed with a blood test, Walter is faced with major decisions. Bond or reject? [Spoiler Warning] Walter’s wife is compassionate and willing to work through this unexpected, awkward situation, but Walter is crusty and uncooperative—at first. By film’s end, he not only embraces Buddy, he reassesses his priorities.
Outside of a nun caring for Buddy at the orphanage, and a menorah in a doctor’s waiting room, there’s no spiritual content whatsoever. And that omission is glaring. Like too many Christmas movies, this one makes no mention of the real reason for the season. Elf’s saving grace is that it wants to quell cynicism and promote yuletide spirit (defined by Santa as being “about believing, not seeing”) rather than preach a secularized sermon about the meaning of Christmas. Elf is about promoting kindness, staying upbeat, valuing others and knowing that it’s never too late to get removed from the naughty list (Santa says Walter “lost sight of what’s important in life … but that doesn’t mean [people] can’t find their way again”).
Buddy takes a liking to Jovie, an employee at a large department store. When she has problems with her utilities, she showers at the store’s locker room. Hearing her singing, Buddy innocently goes inside, sits on the sink and harmonizes. Of course, she’s shocked when she hears his voice, wraps herself in the shower curtain and scolds him. The only skin shown is from just below the shoulders up. Buddy’s adoptive father warns his son about several things he may stumble upon in New York, including “peep shows” (“It doesn’t mean you get to look at presents before Christmas”). In a store, Buddy stares at a woman’s teddy, wondering what the outfit might be used for. Later, he naively gives one as a present to Walter. A little person tells Buddy, “I get more action in a week than you’ll get in a lifetime.” When Buddy kisses Jovie on the cheek, she responds, “You missed” and follows with a full-on lip plant. The film features a non-explicit clip from the song “Whoop, There It Is.”
All of the violence is broad and cartoonish. Lots of pratfalls. Some pushing and shoving. When Buddy finds out he’s human, he faints, falling on an elf. He hits his head on an elfin home’s low soffit. Buddy offers a raccoon a hug, but the critter bares its teeth and leaps at him. Buddy gets bumped by a taxi. He’s also attacked by an insulted little person. Angry that a store Santa is pretending to be the real deal, Buddy confronts him (“You’re a fake”). A fight ensues as the pair toss and tumble in the store, breaking things. Bullies get the worst end of an intense snowball fight.
A dozen mild profanities (“h—,” “d–n”) join such expressions as “friggin,” “pi–ed,” “sucked,” “son of a nutcracker,” “up yours” and “oh my g–.”
Moviegoers are told by the narrator (Bob Newhart) that non-elfin folks were once considered as possible toymakers, but some “drank too much”—a comment that puts a negative spin on overindulgence. Similarly, Buddy chastises a department-store Santa for smelling of booze. Landing in jail, Buddy shares a cell with prisoners who smoke. The Empire State Building’s mailroom crew is shown at a bar. Jovie sings an old Bing Crosby song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” that includes the line, “Maybe just a half a drink more.” A version of the same song during the closing credits also mentions cigarette smoking (“maybe just a cigarette more”). Buddy winds up tipsy after mistakenly downing liquor, thinking it’s a new type of syrup. Walter and his wife drink wine with dinner.
There’s certainly a bit of bathroom humor here, but nothing excessively gross. At dinner with the Hobbs, Buddy lets out a long, long burp. A troll passes gas. A snowman encourages Buddy to avoid yellow snow. In the kids-don’t-try-this-at-home department, Buddy can’t resist prying several globs of used chewing gum off a handrail and popping them into his mouth. He also eats cotton balls. And gets dizzyingly sick after numerous revolutions of a revolving door (he vomits into a trash can). Buddy chops down a tree in the park for the Hobbs to have a Christmas tree—unaware that the act is wrong (Mrs. Hobbs promises to replace it). Embarrassed by the elf suit, Walter requests that Buddy “lose the tights.” It’s implied that, as he pulls them down, his stepmother enters the room and gets an eyeful.
Buddy has a heart as big as the arctic north. There’s not a mean streak or uppity attitude to be found anywhere within. And although he’s as out of place as a palm tree on glacial ice, we empathize. After all, being raised among elves at the North Pole is not conducive to understanding the hard-bitten cynicism of his North American relatives. But it’s when Buddy is forced to learn how to handle rejection (both his father’s and brother’s) that positive lessons about the importance of the family—especially bonding with a father—are underscored. Still, Elf is not as pure as the driven snow. Some mild language problems, a wink at inebriation and a complete avoidance of the season’s Bethlehem roots mix some mud into it.