Family

Elf Is a Documentary About My Life

Whimsy? Tantrums? Inability to focus? To the parent of a kindergartner, Buddy the Elf seems awfully familiar.

Buddy the Elf eats a meal consisting primarily of candy, and so does a little kid.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pick-uppath/Getty Images Plus and New Line Productions.

We’ve been having a little bit of a hard time lately with our beloved almost-6-year-old. Ages 2, 3, 4—despite everybody’s grim predictions—were fine. But since she’s been in kindergarten, with her brain blooming gloriously day to day, we’ve fought: over brushing her hair in the morning; over whether she should be allowed to do her school’s computer reading game Lexia at home (curse you, Lexia); over whether we said she could have a “bite” or a “nibble” of a brownie before bed. Her reality, which is still a child’s, and her willpower and sense of self, which are growing every day, are beautiful—but they are extremely at odds with the fact that we absolutely must get to school on time.

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There are small piles of toys and open coloring books and mugs of markers all over the floor of our living areas, and any attempt to clean and organize is met not only with noncompliance, but with active resistance. She’s kind to everyone in the world but me because, as she says, “With mudder is where I can SCREAM!” She is always in motion, and always talking (or singing), and sometimes the unpredictability of her movements and the incessance of her sounds drives us absolutely mad. “Please,” we beg, sounding like the meanest Grinches in the world. “Please, stop jumping, for one minute.”

All these fights are harder on me than I ever expected, in part because she remains so darling to us. We want her to stay the same forever, and also cannot wait for her to grow up, just a little bit more. That’s why, when we watched the Will Ferrell Christmas classic Elf together this year, I had an epiphany: Elf is a comedy, but it’s about our little tragedy. The central conflict of the movie, in which Buddy, who has been raised at the North Pole, tries to convince his long-lost father and his family that Christmas is really real, and that family tries to understand how a grown man could possibly wear a green felt costume every day, is also the central conflict of our lives. Our realities and our daughter’s are out of step, and we know that the only thing that will bring her in line with us is the inevitable loss of the things that make her a delight.

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I first figured this out watching the scene in the pediatrician’s office, where Buddy’s been brought so that his grumpy, work-distracted dad, Walter (played by James Caan), can find out whether he’s really his biological father. Buddy is supposed to be a thirtysomething human, but Ferrell and the director Jon Favreau (who also plays the doctor) have said they patterned his actions on those of a child. Buddy can’t sit still; the bright beam of his attention shifts constantly. “Am I sick? Why am I sitting on paper? Can I listen to your necklace? Why is there a skeleton over there?” he rapid-fires at the doctor. When the doctor pricks his finger to take a blood sample, Buddy absolutely BELLOWS. The men have a goal: get this test done, so they can get back to the long line of patients and the work waiting at the desk. Buddy, on the other hand, has his feelings of joy, curiosity—and pain. The doctor has only one prescription to offer Walter, which is basically: He’ll grow out of it.

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As with many of the most 6-year-old-ish of Buddy’s scenes, J. loved the pediatrician bit. Of course, her absolute favorite was the scene where Buddy, left alone in the family’s apartment, creates a meal out of spaghetti, maple syrup, Pop-Tarts, marshmallows, and crushed-up candy canes, then eats it with his hands. There is nothing a real almost-6-year-old loves more than watching somebody else do something that transgresses the boundaries of polite society, and being able to name it as such—I think because the experience is so rare for them. I have to hold myself back from pointing out that Buddy’s description of the elves’ four food groups—”candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup”—is not so very far from how J. would eat, if given free rein. We’ve had enough fights about that already.

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Buddy’s ability to read the people around him—to adjust the vibes he’s putting out to match the tone of the room—is precisely that of a kindergartner. If the workers in the mailroom at Walter’s office want to meet him halfway and sing “Whoomp! (There It Is)” while he dances on a table, Buddy is all good. But if the world is not in a celebratory mood, he has a hard time responding to that complexity. He’s trying, as he tries to drink coffee to please his father, but it rarely works. He tells his tweenage half-brother Josh, while they ride an elevator up and down and jump to feel that floating feeling, “I wish Dad were here,” and when his brother scoffs “Why?,” replies “He’s the best dad in the whole world!” Buddy perceives people as he likes them to be, and while Elf is trying to sell you on the idea that the magic of Christmas will bring people up to scratch—Walter becomes a better dad for Buddy, instead of Buddy learning disappointment, as Josh did—it’s also a movie about the child’s fundamental lack of perception of how people actually are.

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The visual gag of Ferrell’s large body in an elf suit, acting like a 6-year-old, is about the glaring mismatch between the child world and the adult world. So is the trail of half-beautiful, half-junky Christmas debris Buddy leaves behind him. The apartment fills up with paper-chain decorations, which Walter periodically rips down in fits of pique—just like me, clearing away a magpie nest of toys and candy wrappers at 8:30 pm, muttering. Overnight, Buddy transforms a bookcase into a really nicely made rocking horse–a manifestation of his drive to impose his own fanciful reality on the useful adult world. When he chops down a tree in the park and brings it into his father’s apartment, Josh asks him how they’ll get the star on top. “I’ve got it,” Buddy says, and jumps right on the tree; he and the tree crash to the ground.

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The world is full of things Buddy understands at about 35 percent. He recognizes the buttons in the elevator at his father’s office look like a Christmas tree, but doesn’t understand that if he hits every button to light them up, he’ll ruin everyone’s morning. Walking through a department store, he opens his mouth for “passion fruit spray,” which turns out to be perfume. He can read the sign in the department store that flags the lingerie as being for “that special someone,” but then he buys it and gives it to his father. (J., when Walter opened the package and held up the lacy teddy: “I know that’s for a lady, because it has a place for boobs!”) He can read the sign outside the coffee shop that announces the store has “the best cup of coffee in the world,” but he doesn’t understand that superlatives don’t always match reality.

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This year, I found the end of the film to be unexpectedly sad. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of kindergarten fantasy: Walter comes to love Buddy and learns the true meaning of Christmas. This conclusion, which also awards Buddy his crush, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), is about Buddy changing the world to meet his 6-year-old ideals—rather than bending to it, as all real 6-year-olds must. As my daughter will, soon enough.

Everybody, J. included, loves the ending of Elf. She clapped and cheered as Santa landed and took off from Central Park, and went to bed singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” like the masses of New Yorkers who have collectively realized that reality is not the demands of daily life, but sweets and gifts and songs and joy. As for me, I tucked her in, asking her gently to please stop singing and go to sleep, and then picked up the day’s toys, humming a much more melancholy tune.

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