Exactly 20 years ago, Will Ferrell donned yellow tights and a green pointy hat to play Buddy, a man who grew up thinking he was an elf in the North Pole until he learns about his human family in New York City. He leaves the fantastical world he knows to find his biological father, convinced they will be ice-skating and holding hands together once his father learns he exists.
The film, directed by Jon Favreau, was released on Nov. 7, 2003, but it endures as a popular holiday film because of Ferrell’s whole-hearted, sincere commitment to being a human who has a strong “affinity for elf culture,” as he puts it in the movie.
Elves eat sugar as sustenance; Buddy happily pours maple syrup on spaghetti and eats old gum off a subway entrance railing. He runs tireless circles inside elevator doors and shrieks as loudly as children do with joy at the thought of Santa coming to a mall department store. Buddy truly believes in spreading Christmas cheer through the power of people singing loud for all to hear, and by the end of the film, even his skeptics believe it, too.
Since the film’s release, “Elf” has inspired a Broadway musical, an animated special and a video game.
Brian Steinberg is a New York City-based theater actor who is an “Elf” fan and a guide for On Location Tours’ “Elf” tour. He told HuffPost “Elf” remains a movie he has watched with his family each year since he was a kid.
“Elf succeeds because it blends so many classic Christmas stories to tell one definitive tale about belonging and family,” Steinberg said. “From a group of elves who take in a lost child ― ‘Santa Clause is Coming to Town’ ― to a grumpy father who deep down truly loves his family ― ‘A Christmas Story’ ― all mixed into a tale of an outsider who ends up saving Christmas: ‘Rudolph.’”
Buddy is supposed to make you laugh. But what makes him an unforgettable character is how he remains cheerful and kind despite realizing that his whole existence was a lie and feeling continuously out of place everywhere he goes.
And that’s a kind of sincere optimism about life that remains heartwarming to watch ― and is an attitude we all should practice more often.
Why the film’s life lesson of being cheerfully hopeful still appeals.
The comedy of “Elf” is watching Ferrell gleefully hopscotching around New York City sidewalks and honking taxis as he befuddles New Yorkers in his elf attire. But the heart of “Elf” is how it’s a relatable tale about an outsider trying to make a home in a strange new land he left as a child.
In a different film, Buddy could have been mean-spirited. But Buddy delights in everything and everyone he sees. From a child in the doctor’s waiting room to his dad’s secretary, Deborah, Buddy gives everyone he meets his full attention. He genuinely compliments people’s outfits with the sound of their names and remembers what they want for Christmas. “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” is how he greets strangers on the phone.
It’s a grace that the people in his life do not extend back to him at first. Buddy grew up with elves and was raised by a kind Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), but his peer elves talk about Buddy behind his back for not being as efficient as them at making toys. And the humans are not initially kind, either. James Caan plays Walter, Buddy’s grouchy father who is not thrilled with learning he has a secret son who believes Santa’s workshop is real.
“I don’t belong anywhere,” Buddy laments at his lowest moment alone in Manhattan. But Buddy keeps trying to connect with others and never stays down on himself too long. And that hopeful quest drives the film.
That earnest optimism is beneficial to us living in reality, too. Our brains often have a negativity bias; psychologists say we tend to harp on what’s going wrong rather than focusing on what is ― or what could ― go right. However, research shows a more hopeful attitude is a perk for our well-being: More optimistic people have less stress and better relationships. Buddy’s story is an example of that in action.
At first, Buddy is seen as a strange man by his human family. But after he helps his younger brother Michael win a snowball fight against bullies, Buddy gains a new ally and a confidante. “I’m his brother,” Michael proudly tells Buddy’s co-worker Jovie when they meet. Together, the brothers bond over jumping on mattresses, getting dates and what their Dad is like.
“He’s the worst dad in the world. All he does is work,” Michael tells Buddy about their Dad, who plans to work through Christmas Eve. “All he cares about is money. He doesn’t care about you, or me, or anybody.”
But Buddy does not give up on their Dad; his optimism drives this, too. He knows that his Dad is on Santa’s naughty list, but he continues to sincerely tell his frowning father he loves him and that he wants to hang out with him, even if he’s unused to tickle fights or tucking him in bed.
The awkward relationship comes to a breaking point when Walter disowns Buddy for costing him a potential publishing deal, and Buddy leaves Walter’s home as a result. When Walter finally finds Buddy in Central Park to apologize and tell his son that he loves him, Buddy could have been justifiably ungracious to the man who continuously snapped at and sidelined him, but Buddy remains kind.
The father and son hug: Walter with a few hesitant taps on the back and Buddy with a long, tight hug. Eventually, Buddy gets the chance to show Walter that Santa is real and to save Christmas, but the true holiday gift Buddy gives his human family is that he believes in their potential to be a family.
“Buddy didn’t save Christmas because he made Santa’s sleigh fly. He saved Christmas because he reminded his family of how much they loved each other,” Steinberg told me.
When Santa asks Buddy to help him fix his broken sleigh, Buddy resists. “I’m not an elf Santa; I can’t do anything right,” he says.
“Buddy, you’re more of an elf than anyone I ever met and the only one I’d want working on my sleigh,” Santa encourages him.
“I’ll try,” Buddy says. “Papa taught me how.”
That makes Buddy special: He holds onto hope even when failure is likely, and he’s inefficient at making toys in the workshop or when his new family does not understand him. He gives it his best shot, which makes you want to root for him ― even 20 years later.