There’s a scene in Elf where Will Ferrell’s Buddy walks into a New York City coffee shop after seeing a sign in the window that reads” World’s best cup of coffee.” He then praises the entire staff for creating what he thinks is the best version of the popular drink. Buddy gleefully says, “You did it! Congratulations. World’s best cup of coffee. Great job everybody,” as the staff looks at him with blank stares. Pretend that the sign reads, “World’s best Christmas movie,” and I’m playing the role of Buddy in 2003, congratulating the cast and crew of Elf for creating a Christmas classic. I would have received the same confused looks from everyone in the room. Yet, time has been good to Elf, which has aged like a fine wine.

After 20 years, Elf has entered the pantheon of great Christmas movies and owns the championship belt for best of the 21st century. Released in theaters on November 7, 2003, Elf depicts the story of Buddy, a human raised by Santa’s elves after being accidentally transported to the North Pole. As an adult, Buddy is an outcast due to his large stature and inability to make toys. After learning he’s a human, Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his biological father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), in New York City. Walter is a selfish businessman whose decision to prioritize work over his family puts him on the “Naughty List.” Devastated, but not deterred, Buddy believes that by spending time with Walter, his Christmas spirit will rub off on his father and reshape his attitude.

Right people at the right time

An elf looks at a man and woman at a desk in Elf.
New Line Cinema

Imagine telling someone in 2003 that the Mugatu in Zoolander, Sonny Corleone from The Godfather trilogy, and the guy who wrote Swingers would team up to create a timeless Christmas classic. Let’s start with Ferrell, best known for his time on Saturday Night Live before 2003. Ferrell was still trying to transition from a bit character to a movie star. Besides Night at the Roxbury, Ferrell appeared predominantly in supporting roles, including Mustafa in Austin Powers, Mugatu in Zoolander, and Sky Corrigan in Superstar. These small and impactful roles are the best examples of Ferrell’s innate ability to steal scenes.

But 2003 would change Ferrell’s career. In February 2003, Ferrell starred in Old School as Frank the Tank, an iconic character in the actor’s filmography that showcased his potential as a star. Later that year, Ferrell put on some spandex and traded in beer for syrup in Elf. Ferrell plays Buddy with such sweetness that it’s surprising to see the guy who went streaking play a silly, lovable, and heartwarming character. What no one could have predicted is that 2003 would kick off Ferrell’s run as the top comedy actor for the next decade, with only Adam Sandler as a contemporary.

Ferrell gets a lot of credit for his performance in Elf, and rightfully so, but the supporting cast deserves the same amount of praise, especially James Caan. The late actor symbolized masculinity in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to his roles in The GodfatherThe GamblerRollerball, and Thief. Pairing this rugged, muscular actor alongside the zany Ferrell was a stroke of genius. After being a Scrooge for three-quarters of the movie, the moment Walter finally believes in the Christmas spirit and accepts Buddy as his son is a heartwarming one that feels earned.

The rest of the cast includes Mary Steenburgen as Emily Hobbs, Walter’s wife, who shows compassion and care upon Buddy’s arrival; Daniel Tay as Michael, Walter’s son and Buddy’s sidekick, who perfectly captures the baggy clothing revolution of the early 2000s; pre-New Girl and 500 Days of Summer Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, Buddy’s co-worker who warms up to his kindness and becomes his love interest; and comedic legends Ed Asner and Bob Newhart as Santa Claus and Papa Elf.

Combine all that with director Jon Favreau, who was best known for playing D-Bob in Rudy and Mike in Swingers, and Elf feels like a case of getting people in the right place at the right time. Seriously, who could have predicted that Elf’s director would kick off the MCU with Iron Man and become Lucasfilm’s MVP with The Mandalorian?

New York City as a character

There is nothing like New York City during the holidays. From the Christmas tree and ice rink at Rockefeller Center to the Empire State Building and Central Park, New York City plays an integral role in Elf. The city takes on a life of its own in the holiday season, and Elf does a great job of weaving the scene-stealing locations into the film’s storylines, like when Buddy had to pass through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest and the sea of swirly twirly gum drops before walking through the Lincoln Tunnel.

As someone who has lived in New York City, it can feel dirty, congested, and crowded the majority of the time. Don’t even get me started on the rats and the trash. Yet, the city comes to life in November and December. People are more cheerful and pleasant. And it feels realistic that a group of cynical New Yorkers would band together on Christmas Eve to sing Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Elf is a gentle reminder of how magical New York City can be.

Elf’s message still works in 2023

Buddy stands at a table with elves in Elf.
New Line Cinema

The true test of an all-time movie is its timeless nature. Elf is 20 years old, and besides Michael’s fashion, virtually nothing feels dated. Aside from the troublesome lyrics in Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Elf’s audience doesn’t have to go through the mental gymnastics of themes aging poorly or rooting for canceled actors. It’s the rare Christmas movie that satisfies all age groups and demographics, from the young girls who still believe in Santa to a bar full of bikers.

Christmas spirit and holiday cheer are never going out of season, and neither will Elf. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to make some spaghetti with maple syrup for breakfast.

Elf is streaming on Max. It is also available on Hulu.

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