Elf at 20: Will Ferrell ensures that this remains a Christmas staple | Will Ferrell

The first rule in the Code of Elves is to “treat every day like Christmas”, and that, in a nutshell, is Will Ferrell’s comic style. At 6ft 3in, he’s almost always the tallest actor on screen yet his instinct is to play even bigger, with an ungainly exuberance that tends to set the tone for whatever scene he’s in. He’s a Bergdorf Goodman window display. He’s the neighbor who nearly kills himself every year hanging enough lights and gaudy holiday bric-a-brac around his house to slow traffic in the subdivision. He couldn’t fade back into the scenery if he tried – and, to his immense credit, he never, ever tries.

It’s not quite right to say he was born to play Buddy, an exuberant orphan raised in Santa’s workshop in Elf, because he was also the only conceivable person to play Ron Burgundy in Anchorman or Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. But his casting – and, helpfully, the impeccable casting of the entire film – has turned this agreeable fish-out-of-water comedy into something close to a holiday classic 20 years later. He treats every scene like Christmas, rapaciously tearing into every comic opportunity given to him while bringing the other characters on board, one by one, through his infectious energy. When a gaggle of New Yorkers gather to sing Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town on Christmas Eve, they may as well be crying “uncle”.

The picture-book framing casts Bob Newhart as Buddy’s adoptive father and the film’s narrator, greeting the audience with a low-key “Oh hello, you’re probably here about the story.” Having slipped into Santa’s bag as a toddler, Buddy is the first human to set foot in his workshop, a crossing-the-streams situation that recalls Monsters, Inc from two years earlier, only the North Pole proves more accommodating. That doesn’t make Buddy an easy fit, however, with his enormous size and his woeful inefficiencies as a toymaker, with production that far exceeds what a normal human could do in a day but is 915 Etch A Sketches off the pace of an actual elf.

And so, inevitably, Buddy asks questions about his roots and learns that his one surviving parent, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is a curmudgeonly children’s book publisher who works in the Empire State Building. Santa warns that Walter is on “the naughty list”, but Buddy is undeterred from journeying to New York City via an ice floe, a Candy Cane forest, the Lincoln Tunnel and a lot of yadda-yadda-ing in between. When his father initially rejects him, Buddy heads straight to the Santa display at a nearby department store in his full elf suit, gets mistaken for a hired hand and meets Jovie, a sullen fellow employee with a certain twinkle in her eye. She’s played by Zooey Deschanel, a performer that not even an oversized man-elf of indefatigable cheer can out-whimsy.

The plotting of Elf is as cookie-cutter as the stale frosted treats left out for Santa on Christmas Eve, with Walter serving as the Scrooge-like miser who puts his work ahead of his family and cares so little about pleasing children that he sends a mediocre book to print with missing pages. And as a naif thrown into the hustle-bustle of a confusing and hostile city, the Buddy character owes a lot to Daryl Hannah’s beached mermaid in Splash, who also learns much about humanity from a department store. It’s no great surprise that the city bends more to his will than he to theirs, because the Christmas spirit needs to prevail and he’s the one who possesses all of it.

But beyond the superb performances – Mary Steenburgen, reprising her cheeriness as the mother from another Ferrell comedy, Step Brothers, plays off Caan’s dyspeptic grouch perfectly – Elf thrives in the details. It kindly offers children a decent-enough explanation of how so many presents get made and distributed every year, with elves dutifully pouring sand into Etch A Sketches and product-testing Jack-in-the-Boxes for a sleigh that’s supplemented reindeer-power with horsepower. The director, Jon Favreau, nods charmingly to Rankin-Bass with an animated snowman and other North Pole denizens, and his New York is affectionately coarse. Like Caan, the city projects a menace that its soft heart belies.

Photograph: New Line/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Some of the funniest running gags rely on Buddy being between worlds, neither fully human nor elf. He may fall behind his quota in Santa’s workshop, but he can whip together a piece of New York skyline with Lego bricks or construct a sturdy rocking horse out of the family entertainment center. His hosts are horrified by his request for maple syrup on pasta night, but he’s awake the next morning packing spaghetti for their lunches, because it’s what he imagines they might like. In a way, his cluelessness isn’t so far out of step with other humans: it may be funny that Buddy surprises Jovie on a date by taking her to a restaurant that claims to have “the world’s greatest coffee”, but is that any worse than the native New Yorker Travis Bickle taking a date to a XXX-rated movie in Taxi Driver?

Ferrell was only a year away from his long stint as a performer on Saturday Night Live and Elf seems tailored to his versatility as a sketch maestro. He excels at stepping into a new space and transforming it, whether Buddy’s turning a grim mailroom full of work-release drones into party central or disrupting a meeting with a temperament author (Peter Dinklage) he mistakes for a fellow elf. Ferrell is playing a simpleton, but Buddy’s persistence is the key to the whole film: either these city-folk can continue being miserable or they can surrender to the Christmas cheer he’ll keep foisting on them so relentlessly.

The bar is low on holiday classics. Do a Google search for “Christmas movies” and most of the ones that have endured are merely passable, all summoning up the expected emotions in the usual way, through pratfalls or treacle or often both at once. Elf is a modest winner in that regard, but over 20 years, it has become as appealing a go-to option as any film of its time. No one works harder than Ferrell to keep spirits bright – and that’s as true all year ’round as it is here.

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