Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature


Elf reviewed by Greg Wright

Once long ago, Ethics Daily culture editor Cliff Vaughn and I were sitting in a movie theatre debating radical goodness. I have long believed that love professed but undemonstrated is meaningless. But to what extent must one go to demonstrate genuine love toward a fellow human? Personally, my wife Jenn and I have tweaked our own lifestyles to be less concerned about ourselves and more focused on others; but I am yet unsettled in my mind about taking any truly radical steps toward change.

Cliff and I certainly agreed, in any event, that when goodness is radical, there’s no mistaking it.

Perhaps ironically, the screening which Cliff and I were attending in Manhattan was the holiday feature, Elf. At its most elemental level, the story is a retelling of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For high-concept pitch purposes, it might also be described as a Christmas fish-out-of-water story: what would a human child raised as one of Santa’s elves do when first exposed to human culture, courtesy of New York City?

elf-insetIf you’re a holiday film buff, there’s plenty to like about Elf. First, there are engaging performances by Will Farrell as Buddy the Elf, and Zooey Deschanel, who brings cabaret experience to bear on her character, Jovie. There’s also the happy casting of Edward Asner as Santa Claus and Bob Newhart as Papa Elf. And last, but not least, the movie also pays visual tribute to a host of holiday classics.

Elf invokes Miracle on 34th Street, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and It’s a Wonderful Life, among many others. So this clean, amusing, good-natured light comedy has turned out to be not just one more entry in the holiday film sweepstakes, it’s the continuation of a long and honorable tradition of films about “saving Christmas” — and, indirectly, about the saving power of Christmas.

Because the thing that makes Buddy the adult “elf” stand out in New York City is his radical goodness. He is variously described by the movie’s characters, actors and makers as “pure as the driven snow,” “child-like,” “innocent,” “naive,” and “magical.” In many ways, star Will Farrell told me in pre-release interviews, Buddy demonstrates that ignorance (of the ways of the world) can truly be bliss.

Mary Steenburgen, who plays Buddy’s step-mother, put it another way: Buddy shows us that we “are all capable of being magical.”

So why aren’t we magical? Steenburgen offered an answer: natural human cynicism and the everyday cares of life drag us down.

But if we are all capable of being magical, where do we start? Radical, elf-like goodness may be a distant goal; but maybe we can start — as Buddy’s young half-brother Michael tells their naughty-listed father — by really singing, and not just moving our lips. If we stop going through the motions and do the right thing when we see it, that may be radical enough for today.

Strident voices have their place, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of cause for protest in recent weeks.

But there is another path to change. It starts with you and me, and it starts with being radically nice. Give it a try this holiday season… and the rest of the year, too.

Merry Christmas!

Elf is available to stream online at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!


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