My favourite film: Elf

Kate Abbott continues our writers' favourite film series with a story of Santa's not-so-little helper that puts the jingle bells on her family Christmas

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You know when you can't feel your feet even though the heating's meant to be on? When your breath frosts indoors and your flat looks like Frozen Planet? The guy to get you through those midwinter woes is Will Ferrell's Buddy in Elf. At the beginning of every December, my only advent ritual is to curl up in a blanket and laugh with Buddy on a cold day. I could pick Kevin McAllister to pass the time with (and for a long time I did watch him combat the Wet Bandits, on VHS loop, endlessly, all year round), but he doesn't quite capture the festive spirit like Buddy does.

No one else could pull this off. Adam Sandler would've been too whiny, Ben Stiller would have given you the mad creeps. But when Ferrell declares to his miserable pubescent brother with unashamed, speed-talking glee, "Good news, I saw a dog today", it's the real deal. I've never liked him that much in anything else – I was more meh about Anchorman than most – and yet he's become my screen idol for this ridiculous role alone.

And I know it's silly. But I love life-affirming cinematic nuggets that let you remember the camaraderie in the world and forget how dreary and rat-race the day-to-day can be (see also Thomas McCarthy's back catalogue). Every year I introduce new people to Elf, often those who have deliberately avoided it or discounted it as too naff, too kitsch, too Christmassy. They all love it.

Despite being the peppiest man alive, Buddy is impossible to dislike. He's not a real elf, but a human raised as one in Santa's grotto. He doesn't realise he's different – even when he can't take the toy-making pace. But after 30 years, he wises up to the fact that he's human and sets off to find his real dad in the wilds of New York city, with only a snowglobe to guide his way to its skyline.

But Dad's on the naughty list. Walter Hobbs, the most miserly of children's book publishers, tries everything to be rid of this looming weirdo in yellow tights – and Buddy does his darndest to get him on side, from tickle fights to snuggling and phoning him every five minutes. As Buddy attempts to acclimatise to alien New York life, he falls in love with toy-store employee Jovie, who shares his "affinity for elf culture". Walter clearly doesn't. He wants to normalise his firstborn, a grownup who gloops maple syrup over spaghetti and appears to have ADHD.

Patriarchal interventions aside, Buddy has broader societal problems to solve: there's an "energy crisis" with Santa's sleigh and the Clausometer is waning because no one believes any more. And who could fail to sob, or at least feel a little shiver, at the Jovie-led singalong that amps up Christmas spirit and saves Santa from being snapped by the paps?

The entire plot is ludicrous – imagine that initial meeting when it was pitched. It seems such an unlikely outing for both James Caan as the Scroogey dad and king of the Swingers Jon Favreau as the director, but goofball Ferrell and quirky Zooey Deschanel must have read the script, fallen over laughing and knew they would be fools to turn it down. Being on set was surely the best; what I wouldn't give for the blooper reel of Ferrell doing take after take of the world's longest post-Coke burp, back-to-back revolving-door runs, or the speed snowball fight. Elf may seem a mere turkey, but I love its laugh-a-second slapstick writing and cockle-warming old-timer soundtrack featuring Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Prima.

Mostly though, I wish I was like Buddy. Nothing gets him down, especially not the days drawing in; he's giddy and hopeful and his mantra mainly involves singing loud for all to hear. I wish I found joy in everyday things like escalators, was a dab hand at snowball sculpting, a whizz with an Etch A Sketch, used cusses like "cotton-headed ninny-muggins", and had his telephone manner ("Buddy the elf: what's your favourite colour?").

Every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember, my family has crowded round the telly with a tub of chocolates and cried over It's a Wonderful Life. In 2003, Elf came and knocked James Stewart off the top spot. Now that should sadden me deeply, because I adore George Bailey and the building and loan gang. But Elf is hilarious, doesn't take up nearly three hours of precious pre-pub bickering time, and we finally found something so silly that not even Nana can nap through it after a couple of sherries.


Kate Abbott

The GuardianTramp

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