‘Elf’ and the Triumph of Multiculturalism

There’s been a lot of hatred and prejudice clogging the news outlets this winter, even during a time of year when a large percentage of the world is supposed to celebrating the arrival of Christmas and flurries of warm, fuzzy thoughts. Even if you’re not celebrating Christmas, there are still plenty of reasons to have warm, fuzzy thoughts. And the warm fuzzies, you know, can cross cultures, languages, climates, and skin colors. They can be profound, too, or silly.

In the midst of so much intolerance and confusion, of bitterness and cynicism, I feel, once again, that a little bit of a good movie can do a lot to bring to mind the silliness of war and the healing power of peace and understanding, even under the most ridiculous of circumstances. Which is why, today, I recommend—seriously—the movie Elf.

I’m not the least bit kidding when I say that Elf is maybe one of the most accessible portrayals of cross-culturalism in popular film. And despite its abundance on several networks during Christmastime, it’s film that a lot of people, I think, wouldn’t automatically approach with a critical eye, probably because it includes Will Ferrell in yellow tights eating syrup spaghetti and belching for ten seconds straight. That’s totally understandable.

But if someone were to explain Elf’s plot to someone who had never seen it before, I don’t think the explainer would be able to ignore some key elements that come to light once the movie is broken down to the bones. Especially during these modern days when so many aspects of other “cultures” or “races” are proposed to be unavailable and incomprehensible to people outside those specifications.

Ferrell plays Buddy the elf, an adult human raised from infancy in the culture of the North Pole, but who struggles to fit in with his family and peers due to physical differences that limit him from participating comfortably in their lifestyle.

While Buddy loves the world he grew up in, he jumps on the chance to find his birth father and experience New York City, hoping to expand his family and bring Christmas cheer to as many people as possible.

When he enters the world of New York, Buddy becomes an immigrant. He bears the evidence of cultural difference in his clothing, his gait, his social interactions—all of which are normal to him, but strange and uninviting to the native New Yorkers he encounters. He also hilariously misunderstands the workings of the city itself, using revolving doors as theme park rides, playing hopscotch on crosswalks, and eating cotton balls at the doctor’s office, mistaking them for candy. Buddy is a true “Other,” a term made famous by postcolonial writer and critic Edward Said to describe the way marginalized groups are often perceived as weak, bizarre, and unequal to a group in power (which, as colonialism has taught us, is not always the majority group). He even makes his own father uncomfortable.

Later, under his father’s insistence that Buddy try harder to integrate into New York society, Buddy lands a job at a toy store where he meets Jovie, a woman who, although a New Yorker herself, is certainly more withdrawn from society than Buddy is. She, not the “immigrant Other,” is the one without a voice in this scenario, suggesting that even a native inhabitant of a certain place or culture can be made into something of a subaltern, something of a silent figure whose true story we may never know. Despite her amazing talent for singing, for example, Jovie fears performing for crowds more than anything else. Ironically, it’s Buddy, cast out from his father’s attentions, who is the first in the film to hear her sing and recognize her gift.

But the film doesn’t let these alienated characters remain within the critical opinion that different worlds and ideas cannot combine into something harmonious. In fact, the longer Buddy stays at his job, expressing his own strong suit for décor and general Christmas cheer, the more his boss and coworkers recognize his differences as valuable, unique talents. And after leaving his doubtful stepbrother Michael amazed with his skills in an over-the-top snowball fight against some school bullies, Michael suddenly becomes more interested in Buddy’s previous life. The two become close friends, marking an important moment in which different outlooks or experiences do nothing to prevent the closest bond of all—the bond of family.

In the end, Buddy, his human family, and Jovie save Santa and his crashed sleigh from becoming stranded in Central Park by—in a literal interpretation of the harmony that comes from breaking down barriers—“singing loud for all to hear.” Jovie finds her voice, Buddy finds acceptance, Michael finds passion, and Buddy’s dad uncovers the reality that even two people sprung from the same branch can be completely different, and yet still fall victim to the transforming emotion of love. The cultural connection is complete, and in the epilogue, the audience finds out that Buddy and Jovie even start a family at their own at the North Pole, a literal rebirth of an ideal union between once-conflicting worlds.

And the best part of all: Buddy succeeds in gaining acceptance in the new world without having to change himself. His elf culture remains perfectly intact, as do his personal nuances (like insisting on sitting on Papa Elf’s tiny lap back at the North Pole), suggesting that integration can be achieved without sacrificing individuality. The merging of the two worlds requires more tolerance, not less oddity.

This may seem like an overreaching analysis of a movie about an adopted Christmas elf and his grumpy old man, but sometimes it’s good to find un-marketed layers of the media we absorb every day. Because if people spent more time figuring out what makes people come together instead of arguing about what keeps them apart, then even the most trialing of experiences can become an opportunity to mend bonds and revive the equally distributed treasures of diversity.

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