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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that although Elf has some potty language and mild swearing ("pissed," "hell," "damn," etc.) and a few references to bodily functions, it's family friendly at its core. Even young kids will appreciate the humor inherent in this fish-out-of-water tale, although some might be upset that Buddy's mother died and that his father never knew about him. The few action sequences (galloping rangers chasing Santa in Central Park, a brief confrontation with a scary raccoon, and some scuffles in a department store) aren't really threatening, and no one is injured. Although the movie is 100% on board with the magic of Christmas, some characters shake their head and roll their eyes at the notion of Santa, and kids talk about the possibility of parents being the ones behind the presents. But the movie's overall message of the value derived from honesty, acceptance, and affection for all humanity is clear and positive.
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What's the story?
In ELF, Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, a human raised as one of Santa's elves who discovers at age 30 that he has a real father named Walter (James Caan) who lives in New York City and is on Santa's "naughty" list. Buddy leaves the North Pole to find Walter, knowing only what he's learned from the elves. (Thus, he's a whiz at making snowflake decorations and spreading good cheer, and he always assumes the best about everyone -- not especially useful skills in Manhattan.) Walter, who's in publishing, is in trouble because he has to find a successful new children's story by Christmas Eve. At first, he doesn't believe that Buddy is his son, but after Buddy passes a DNA test, Walter reluctantly brings him home to meet his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and son. Meanwhile, when Buddy stops by the Santa display at Gimbel's, he meets pretty Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). On his way to saving the day and ensuring a happy ending for everyone from the North Pole to NYC, Buddy gets many chances to do silly things as he experiences New York and gets to know Jovie and his family.
Is it any good?
This movie is sweet and funny, though it can't quite seem to make up its mind whether people should need proof of Santa's existence or not. Some of the jokes in Elf work better than others, and the talents of Caan, Steenburgen, Bob Newhart (as Buddy's adoptive father), and Ed Asner (as Santa) are neglected. But director Jon Favreau shows some verve and keeps the story moving quickly enough to keep it from feeling like a series of skits.
Deschanel nicely shows us the way that Buddy appeals to Jovie's longing for a place where singing and sweetness are encouraged. Peter Dinklage has a marvelous cameo as a haughty author of children's books, making his appearance much more than a sight gag. And Ferrell? His lanky cluelessness has a slightly muddled but imperishable sweetness that gives an endearing quality to all the characters he plays, including Buddy, who's a sort of human Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Buddy's naive pleasure in the world around him is ultimately almost as endearing to us as it is to (almost) everyone he meets.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether Buddy is a role model. Do you think Elf intends for him to be someone people admire? Why or why not? Are you more likely to laugh at him or with him? Why? What's the difference?
If you arrived in your town after 30 years at the North Pole, what do you think might surprise and delight you the way that the escalator and revolving door surprised and delighted Buddy?
How does this movie compare to other Will Ferrell comedies? Why do you think he doesn't make more movies for kids?
- In theaters: November 7, 2003
- On DVD or streaming: November 16, 2004
- Cast: James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel
- Director: Jon Favreau
- Studio: New Line
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Holidays, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Compassion, Curiosity, Gratitude, Integrity
- Run time: 90 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: some mild rude humor and language
- Last updated: May 24, 2020
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