In honor of the start of the holiday season (which I refuse to celebrate before Thanksgiving – maybe I’m a purist), I thought I would kick things off with a modern-day classic: Elf. Starring Will Ferrell as the titular character, Buddy the Elf, the film was directed by Jon Favreau after heavy rewrites of the original script by David Berenbaum. The original script was apparently much darker and passed through the town back in the 90’s. Favreau became interested only when he realized that he could turn the story into an homage to the classic Rankin/Bass films like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, A Year Without a Santa Claus, and, most importantly, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
The fact that Favreau pulled such dated inspirations is, ironically, what makes the film and its style so timeless. The humor is contemporary but is still pre-cell phone era, so there are no plots forcing in technology. It taps into the familiar and also acts as a window to that era of holiday films for new, young viewers.
Why you look at the character arcs and structure of the script, what Favreau is balancing is actually pretty interesting and complex. Let’s take a look…
Protagonist: Buddy the Elf
Want: Not be so naive
Need: To redeem his Dad from the naughty list
Antagonist: Walter (personal antagonist); modern society (extra personal)
Want: Find the next big children’s book so he doesn’t lose his job
Need: Get back on the nice list
Pre-Existing Life: Buddy is an orphan who sneaks to the North Pole in Santa’s bag and is adopted by Papa Elf. He grows up naive to the bigger world and unaware that he is not actually an elf. He doesn’t quite fit in, though he’s oblivious, and isn’t keeping up with the other toy-making elves, so he’s demoted to “toy tester.”
Inciting Incident: Buddy overhears his coworkers talking poorly about him not keeping up and he finds out that he is a human, not an elf.
Plot Push / First Act Decision: Buddy finds out who his real father is and that he’s on the naughty list. Buddy decides to head to New York to redeem his father.
Reversal: Buddy tracks down his dad but is kicked out of the building. He then goes to Gimbel’s where he meets the cynical Jovie, dressed like an elf, and finds out that Santa is visiting. He stays in the store all night making everything perfect for Santa’s arrival. It turns out that it’s not the real Santa and Buddy starts a physical altercation with the imposter in front of all the kids. He’s arrested and his biological dad, Walter, is forced to pick him up and take him home.
Midpoint: Buddy moves in and gets to know the family and wins over Michael after defending him to some bullies. Michael talks him into asking out Jovie. Walter is struggling with what to do with Buddy, Meanwhile, at the office, Walter’s job is on the line.
Reversal #2: Walter doesn’t feel like he can leave Buddy at home alone so he bring s him to the office, where he works in the mailroom and accidentally causes a little bit of a distraction.
False Climax / Low Point: Walter brings in the “amazing” Miles Finch to pitch stories and solve his crisis, while Buddy goes on a date with Jovie. His heartwarming nature wins her over more easily than it does with Walter, and the two fall in love. High on life from his date, Buddy runs into his dad’s meeting with Miles Finch to tell him all about it… and insults Miles in the process. Walter tells Buddy he wants him out of his life. Buddy leaves a note at the apartment and runs away.
Plot Push / Third Act Decision: Buddy’s brother, Michael, finds the note (on an etch-a-sketch) and runs to Walter. At the same time, Santa Claus crashes his sleigh in Central Park. A dejected Buddy goes to find out what happened and Santa convinces Buddy that he is the only one that can save the day since he helped build the sleigh. Michael pleads with Walter to help him find Buddy and Walter walks out of his meeting with his son, quitting his job. Jovie sees Buddy on the news and heads to Central Park.
Climax: Walter finds Buddy and tells him that he cares about him. The father and his two sons devised a plan to get Santa out of the park before he’s caught. Walter acts as a distraction, Buddy keeps working on the sleigh while Buddy drives, and Michael takes Santa’s list before news cameras to help raise people’s belief in Christmas, in the hopes that it will help Santa’s sleigh fly. Santa and Buddy are struggling as Walter joins Michael and his wife. Jovie leads the crowd in Christmas songs and everyone joins in… except Walter. Michael calls him out and when he finally joins in, it gives Santa’s sleigh just enough oompf that he’s able to get back in the sky.
Resolution: Walter opens his own children’s book publishing company and sells his first big book, authored by Buddy the Elf. Buddy marries Jovie and they have a daughter, Suzie, that they bring to the North Pole to visit Papa Elf.
The classic fish-out-of-water story is a great tool for creating comedy and drama films, and Favreau mines it to its full extent with Buddy the Elf. What makes this film so much more complex than it appears, it that the film is juggling two different classic Christmas stories.
Probably the most famous Christmas tale is Scrooge. It’s been retold countless times on the page, stage, and screen. In Scrooge, you have a cynic surrounded by people excited for the holidays and all that they bring. In the classic Rankin/Bass films, like Rudolf, Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town, and A Year Without a Santa Claus, you have a character that is pushing for love and the holiday spirit surrounded by cynics. Favreau’s film takes both of these and combines them in a way similar to Miracle on 34th Street. Miracle is a cynical protagonist who is directly confronted by the embodiment of Christmas, Santa, but Santa isn’t the protagonist. In Elf, it’s as if Buddy is the lawyer fighting for the case of Christmas and proving to a cynical world to believe. Walter is Buddy’s antagonist, but he has a clear goal of his own with his job, and it’s ultimately his actions in the third act that save Christmas. Walter is such a Scrooge that everyone else (Buddy, his wife Emily, Michael, his assistant) looks like a believer in comparison, and Buddy is so in love with the holiday that the people he interacts with (Walter, Jovie, Michael) look cynical by comparison. So you get the best of all holiday tropes.
This is not an easy balance, and then on top of that to have the intense visual style and low budget that Favreau used, it’s no wonder that he’s become a go-to for broad audience hits over at Marvel Studios like Iron Man, The Mandalorian, and The Jungle Book. Every sequence in Elf attacks both the main storyline of Buddy vs. Walter, but also adds in several other relationships so you’re watching multiple arcs whether you realize it at once. It’s challenging to balance all of those elements and the writers and editors of this film make it look effortless.