Will Ferrell’s Elf turns fifteen this year, and I think that means it can be considered a classic holiday film. In it, Ferrell plays Buddy, a man who was raised by North Pole elves after crawling out of his orphanage crib and into Santa’s magic bag. Now grown, Buddy takes a voyage “through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops” on a quest to find his human father, a children’s book publisher who lives in Manhattan. At its core, the movie considers the old nature vs. nurture debate (is Buddy an elf or is he human?), but like any good holiday movie, it is wrapped with magic and wonder, then tied together with a shiny ribbon of capitalism and marketing.
Perhaps I am being cynical, taking what is undoubtedly a comedy (it ends with a marriage!) too seriously. However, though I do find it heartwarming and funny, there’s something that doesn’t sit well with me. Buddy the elf is thirty-years-old, but he acts as though he hasn’t hit puberty.
In the beginning, we watch as Buddy does his best to fit in with his adopted elf family. But he’s too slow making toys, his voice too deep for the chorus, his human size too big for the tiny elf houses. It’s a bummer for sure, not being able to fit in with the family who raised you—a feeling many of us misfits relate to this time of year. And it is his misfit-ness that sparks his journey to find his father, though his struggle to conform follows him through the Lincoln Tunnel.
Once Buddy arrives, the cold concrete of NYC seems less harsh because of his naïve wonder. In fact, his childlike view is often the root of the movie’s humor. The juxtaposition of his age (and size) and his behavior creates a space for laughter. In other words, if he didn’t act this way, we wouldn’t have syrupy spaghetti breakfasts, cotton-headed-ninny-muggins, or that escalator scene.
And I think we could keep our belief in this character suspended, except that Buddy’s childish view of the world sticks around even when romance blooms. The blend of boyish awe and manly virility makes me itch like I’m wearing a damp wool sweater.
Further into the movie, Buddy meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) under the glittering lights of Gimbel’s, where he accidentally works after a manager mistakes him for one of the actor-elves hired to help the store’s Santa. Jovie works for Gimbel’s, too, and her costume leads Buddy to think that she is an elf like him. As she decorates a massive tree, he stares at her with the wide-eyed wonder of a child ogling presents wrapped in gold foil paper. But then things get strange(r).
Jovie is struggling to make it in the city. She eats instant ramen for dinner and the water has been turned off in her apartment. She showers at the store, and when Buddy follows the sound of her singing into the ladies’ room, it’s possible we are supposed to see his invasion of her privacy as innocent, but it feels voyeuristic. Then again, who’s more voyeuristic than Santa, who sees you when you’re sleeping? Perhaps Buddy is more elf than human.
Buddy sits on the counter listening attentively, and then joins in at the chorus. Jovie is, understandably, afraid. She screams, clenches the curtain close to her body, and peers through a corner. Buddy screams back, terrified by her terror and somehow unaware of his faux paux. The scene is already unpleasant, but the discomfort is exacerbated by the fact that the tune they were singing is “Baby it’s Cold Outside,” a song that is controversial for its date-rape implications.
However, Jovie doesn’t call the police or report him to HR. (She can’t, you see, because she shouldn’t be using the shower in the first place.) A few scenes later, Buddy asks her on a date “to eat food,” advice given to him by his thirteen-year-old half-brother. She agrees, and the movie slides into a compilation of their date. As they stroll through the city, we are supposed to understand that Buddy is seeing something old with new eyes. But what I see is a manchild dragging a tolerant woman through the city she is more familiar with. And in addition to tolerating it, she takes care to teach him—taking him by the hand to educate him about Christmas trees as she moves from store fronts to Rockefeller Center, and then later, when the compilation ends,over the song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” with her teaching him to kiss. When he kisses her on the cheek, she says, “You missed,” before she pulls him down for a “real” kiss. And perhaps we are supposed to find it charming, but it all feels just a bit too maternal— his childishness righted by a woman who leads by the hand.
And maybe the kiss is extra icky because it doesn’t make sense that Jovie would fall in love with Buddy in the first place.
Elf is certainly not the only movie guilty of portraying this type of relationship. (It’s not even the only Will Ferrell movie. I can make similar arguments about Stepbrothers and that one where he joins a fraternity.) The boy/man falling in love with a mother/lover is a trope. I remember feeling the same uncomfortable itchiness watching the movie Big, where a thirty-year-old Tom Hanks plays Josh Baskin, a 12-year-old boy who becomes an adult overnight.
In this movie, Josh makes a wish to “be big” and wakes up as a grown up. He runs away from home, rents a room in Manhattan, and scores a job in a toy company. But more unbelievable is the relationship that forms between Josh and his coworker, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). Of course, Susan doesn’t know Josh is a child, and he doesn’t tell her right away. So, when he kisses her in her apartment, tentatively touching her bra, we are supposed to feel that their love is somehow pure, innocent because it is his first time. His inexperience appears as vulnerability, yet at the same time his fear of the dark is not the fear of a child, but the kink of an adult who wants to do it with the lights on. However, we know this is a character who has recently turned thirteen. Their relationship, like Buddy and Jovie’s, seems incongruent.
Why is Josh attracted to Susan? He is barely a teenager and only looks thirty. Susan both looks, and is, actually thirty. At the same time, it would have been beyond creepy if Josh looked this way and was still attracted to girls his own age. Their courtship is oddly sentimental, inappropriate, and unmistakably awkward.
Like Buddy, Josh is at first shunned for his inability to adult properly, but is eventually rewarded. And like Buddy, Josh forms an unrealistic and ill-fitting romantic relationship with a woman, despite the fact that he is a boy. Though Buddy is a man, he acts like a child, and though Josh is a child, he looks like a man.
Like Jovie, Susan is a bit unsteady in her life. And like Jovie, Susan is also a caretaker. She is simultaneously Josh’s lover and his stand-in mother as she tends to his cuts and tolerates his apartment. And in the last scene of Big, she drives him home to his tree-lined street, becoming his mother for one final time when she kisses him on the head to say goodbye.
I want to ask: What is it about these female characters? They seem to be written to fall in love with children, thus turning them into the amalgamations of mother/lovers. Why does this happen?
But I feel like I know the answers to those questions. These are the roles we know of women. Caretakers, patient lovers, grown women with problems that can be solved by the love of men, no matter that the men are lacking their level of maturity.
So maybe the question isn’t, what do we make of these female characters?, but rather, what kind of masculinity is this?
Instead I will ask: Do these movies want us to appreciate men who act like boys? Does wonder need to connect to children? Why do we need to combine wonder with sex?
For a moment I tried to see the romantic relationships in these movies as reimagined oedipal stories. But they are not, at least not in a Theban-ian way. Though Buddy does not have a mother, he doesn’t seem to seek one. He falls in easily with his biological dad’s wife. It is a father relationship he desires. And Josh has a mother, but he abandons her, letting her think that he has been kidnapped. For. Six. Weeks.
There is nothing biological in the loves between these boy/men and the adult women they pursue, so the love, we have to think, is nothing more than an organic, traditional “falling.”
I imagine Freud might say that on some level all men seek to sleep with their mothers and therefore all mother figures. So Jovie and Susan (and every female character in an Adam Sandler movie) might fulfill a desire unmet in childhood. And in these two movies specifically, the romance that makes my skin crawl gives way to motherhood in the end. In Big, Josh returns home to his mother. In the closing scene of Ferrell’s flick, Jovie is dressed in elf regalia, visiting Papa Elf at the North Pole, holding Buddy’s child. Roles are maintained and the protagonists’ journeys end where they began.
In fact, at the very end of Elf, Buddy sits on Papa’s lap after he asks to hold the baby. He remains a child even when he has one.
Perhaps the final question to ask is, does Elf even need a romantic component? Did Big?
The answer to these questions is yes. A romantic component appeals to a wider audience. The answer is yes. They make more money this way.