An illustration of Buddy the Elf, from the movie Elf
Will Ferrell stars as Buddy the Elf in the holiday classic. (Illustration by Amber Duan, Pratt Institute)

Buddy the Elf’s Search for Identity in ‘Elf’ Makes for a Holiday Classic

The Christmas movie incorporates more general themes while still celebrating the spirit of the season.

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An illustration of Buddy the Elf, from the movie Elf

The Christmas movie incorporates more general themes while still celebrating the spirit of the season.

Ever since its release in 2003, the movie “Elf has been a holiday classic enjoyed by people of all ages. The movie tells the story of an elf named Buddy, who eventually discovers that he’s not an elf at all but a human raised among Santa’s elves. Upon this discovery, Buddy (Will Ferrell) is sent to New York to meet his father, Walter Hobbes. This comes along with the revelation that Walter is on the “naughty list,” which Buddy is not happy about due to his loyalty to Santa. Since the movie’s main plot revolves around Buddy trying to make his way in New York City without having any prior experience in the human world, it is also a film about identity, which gives it a heavier undertone that is absent from a lot of Christmas media.

From the start of the movie, there are obvious signs that Buddy does not fit in at the North Pole. A montage shows specific incidents of Buddy standing out from the rest of the elves, such as him being too tall and being unable to complete toy-making tasks in a timely manner. The latter is what ultimately causes Santa to reveal to Buddy that he is a “human raised by elves,” which is a line that Buddy uses much later on when he asks a young girl what she wants for Christmas.

Right away, Buddy clearly does not fit in with the human world either. From not knowing how to legally cross the street to misunderstanding business signs (he thinks “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” is an award and not a marketing ploy), Buddy ends up making himself visible in a bad way. The situation becomes worse when he finally shows up at the office of Walter Hobbes. It doesn’t help that he is immediately mistaken for someone in costume. In this case, Buddy is coded as socially awkward since he doesn’t introduce himself before admitting that he’s Walter’s son.

Ultimately, Walter’s negative reaction and obvious disbelief toward the revelation leads to Buddy questioning his place in the world even further. Despite Walter’s rejection, he still has no choice but to stay in his home. To make matters worse, Buddy is also rejected by his brother Michael after exhibiting some behaviors that are considered bizarre in the human world. The big ones that occur throughout the movie are Buddy’s tendency to eat candy with every meal and his belief that everything revolves around Christmas.

Another significant plot point of the movie is the “North Pole” setup in a famous department store. The reason this is so significant is because Buddy can find a place that treats Christmas in the same way he does and (most importantly) doesn’t look down on him for his elf clothes, since they are also the employees’ uniform. However, Buddy fails to realize that it is just a temporary festive display rather than a secluded corner of the world that revolves around Christmas. Although Buddy can fit in here, at least in appearance, he still runs into trouble by saying that the guy hired to play the role of Santa is not actually the real Santa. He also redecorates everything so it looks more like the North Pole as he knows it.

The message of these particular scenes is not to say that being passionate about Christmas is wrong, but rather to say that there are faults in having a Christmas-centric mindset year-round. In the North Pole with other elves, day-to-day life centers around preparing for Christmas; however, entering the human world causes a culture shock, as Buddy realizes that a good 99% of daily life has nothing to do with the holiday at all. The real turning point for Buddy, however, is the DNA test that reveals that Buddy is in fact Walter’s son. This is what confirms that Buddy is a human rather than an elf, which gives him a sign that he needs to start trying to fit in with humans.

One way he does this is by spending the day at Walter’s job. While there, he realizes that “work” does not always mean building things. Viewers can even go as far as to say that Buddy doesn’t even know the real connotation of the word “work,” as in the elf world it is somewhat synonymous with fun. But in New York City, or anywhere other than the North Pole for that matter, work is not fun at all. That is why Buddy gets in trouble for causing a scene, aka a dance party, in the mailroom. It is worth noting that the reason he is sent to the mailroom in the first place is because he caused too many disruptions in Walter’s office, therefore reinforcing the idea that he hasn’t yet learned that the human world comes with a lot of rules.

At the turning point of the movie, Buddy feels like he messes up everything with his family and tries to return to the North Pole. It is not until Buddy leaves his running away note that Walter realizes how much he actually cares about Buddy. In the same sequence, Buddy finds that Santa landed his sleigh in Central Park because it ran out of power due to the lack of Christmas spirit. Realizing that his loyalty truly lies with Santa, Buddy organizes a group of people in Central Park to sing Christmas carols, which eventually makes television news due to the Santa sighting.

The movie concludes with Buddy coming to the realization that his family loves him and that he has a place in both New York City and the North Pole. This is symbolic of how identity is often more complex than it appears to be. The story of Buddy finding his family proves to be very inspiring. Turning it into a children’s book helps Walter restart his career and make it more rewarding. Thanks to his heroic act of saving Christmas, Buddy is welcomed back to the North Pole.

Writer Profile

Noir Galvin

Arcadia University
English and Creative Writing

I am a senior at Arcadia University graduating in December 2021. When I’m not in class or studying, I can be found working on an art project or writing short stories for fun.

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