For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
Still one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies. I was pleased to find that the vast majority of messages lurking in this film are positive. The most important ones being to stay true to yourself and to love fully and openly. Who knew I’d every openly encourage people to watch a Will Ferrell movie? This 2003 movie, in my opinion, will stay a beloved classic for decades to come.
Let’s start with the most obvious potential controversy of the film: all the elves are white. Not just pale-skinned, but super European-looking. I can buy into the idea that human-like creatures living at the North Pole are bound to be very pale because they need to pull in as much Vitamin D as possible. However, this doesn’t account for there being zero Asian-looking elves. If they’re a different species, then maybe let’s go the Lord of the Rings route and give them non-European signifying features, at least. But really, the first people to make it that far north were definitely not of European descent. Even Babes in Toyland chose a Japanese-American Santa character. That being said, they’re fictional creatures largely related Celtic and Briton cultures, which are European. So, maybe I should cut the clearly Caucasian elves some slack. For what it’s worth, having a white Santa doesn’t make sense either. If he’s magic, then why can’t he appear to every child the way they want Santa to look? Okay, rant over.
While the lead characters are also all white, I applaud the film’s use of Cuban-American actor Faizon Love as the Gimbels Santaland Manager. I generally enjoy every character Love plays, and this one is no different. His grumpy, nose-to-the-grind store manager is funny yet lovable. Even when the manager is yelling at Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) to stop singing because there is no signing at the north pole, his frim tone comes across as almost playful in the scene. Buddy certainly ignores him, though you know he really means business. There are other people of color working in Gimbels Santaland, and Buddy also interacts with some men of color passing out flyers on the street, adding some sense of reality to the film set largely in New York City.
Another great casting choice that adds diversity to the cast is that of Peter Dinklage playing top children’s book writer Miles Finch. Finch is rich, snobby, and clearly has an inferiority complex, which he combats with anger and attitude. When I first saw this film, I wondered about choosing a little person for such a role in a story about a man who believes he’s an elf. But, that’s the whole point. Buddy, played by Will Ferrell, is extremely tall at 6 feet, 3 inches. When I first saw the scene where Buddy storms into an important business meeting and (Spoiler Alert!) calls Finch an elf, my jaw dropped. Was that offensive? Um, yes! But again, that was the point. It was offensive, even though Buddy wasn’t being malicious, and Finch was definitely offended. Instead of being a poor choice, however, I think it was a great one. First, I trust Peter Dinklage to take on roles that will empower little people. Second, this shows very clearly that calling people names, even innocently, can be really hurtful. Sure, watching a man under five feet tall kick the butt of a man over six feet is also somewhat humorous. But the implicit message that’s driven home is to be careful with your words. They can be hurtful.
The main explicit message of the film tells audiences members that family is worth far more than money. We’re also told that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” At each turn, Buddy implicitly imparts his elven wisdom about sharing the Christmas spirit and love with everyone you meet. Buddy loves to love in this film, sharing hugs and songs and smiles and odd gifts he believes will brighten someone’s day. He takes the world at face value and invites us to do the same.
There are a few implicit messages that could use come work, however. First up, the guy Buddy meets in the mailroom shares he’s on work release and offers Buddy some “syrup” – clearly alcohol. While kids might assume these guys are on a sugar high, adults will understand the men are hammered. While kids won’t link “work release” to prisoners, there is an implication that even prisoners trusted to work off-premises are bound to have other problems, like alcoholism. It’s not something most people will think twice about, but it was obvious enough that I felt I should mention it.
Another implicit message that will definitely be obvious, even to kids, is that Buddy grew up just fine on a diet entirely comprised of sugar. I can almost hear the push back from a five-year-old claiming, “But Buddy the Elf only ate candy, and he grew up big and strong!” The more I think about it, the movie clearly shows Buddy not only surviving on sugar, but also being far more productive than the average human. He only sleeps 40 minutes a night and still has enough energy to run and build and stomp park bullies in an epic snowball fight? Pass the spaghetti with syrup, please…
Other implied messages: being adopted is great and should have no stigma attached to it, Christmas is the best time of year and leads to singing, smiling, and copious sugar consumption, lip synching is not the same as actually singing, being special is a gift, and don’t eat perfume.
Overall, it’s a fun, funny movie with heart-warming messages and a stellar cast (did I mention Bob Hope, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, and James Caan?) Probably the most important implicit message Buddy shares is to love yourself and to always be true to who you are no matter what. When people hurt his feelings, he just continues loving them and being himself anyway. It’s a message so many children need to hear and internalize. Adults, too.