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What 'Elf' and 'Love Actually' Can Teach Us About Christmas Movies

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | November 13, 2013 |

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | November 13, 2013 |

Christmas movies come out almost every year. This year’s crop includes The Best Man Holiday, Black Nativity, and Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas; a couple years ago saw A Very Harold & Kumar 3-D Christmas, and Arthur Christmas; the year before that had The Nutcracker; going back another year gets you to Robert Zemeckis’s animated A Christmas Carol; and so on. Scrolling through holiday-themed fourth-quarter releases often feels like an exercise in nostalgia that only somebody who made those movies would do. These titles come and go, taking up just enough space to provide a seasonal trip to the movies before quietly shuffling out of the way for prestige pictures, expanding awards bait, and eventually the even more forgettable releases of January and February. The clock is already ticking when they arrive, and the filmmakers seem to approach the projects with that shelf-life in mind. It’s not just that these movies don’t last very long in theaters or in our collective consciousness; it’s that they’re specifically designed not to. They are engineered to be transient, to arrive with the season and disappear like snow in a thaw. Four Christmases. Fred Claus. This Christmas. Deck the Halls. Surviving Christmas. Christmas With the Kranks. For all you remember, I could’ve made some of those up.

This year, though, is the tenth anniversary of two Christmas movies that have managed to outlive their brethren and stay on the pop culture radar. On November 7, 2003, Elf and Love Actually were released. That two holiday-themed movies were released on the same day isn’t surprising — there are only so many weekends between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and the movies are different enough to work almost as counterprogramming, plus Love Actually was a limited release that expanded a week later — but the odds are a lot longer that both of those movies would wind up being major players in the Christmas movie arena. Love Actually did better overseas than it did here, though it still made its money, but Elf was a smash, grossing $173 million domestically on a $33 million budget. That popularity has lasted, too. They both get regular airings on cable during the holiday season (USA Network is known to run Elf on a 24-hour loop sometimes), they’ve both been re-released as anniversary editions on Blu-ray (Love Actually even got a minor restoration), and they’re both still discussed and rewatched more than any other modern Christmas movies. I know this because nobody does commemorative re-releases for Jingle All the Way, and nobody’s making endless series of GIFs for The Santa Clause 3. So why did they last?

A few reasons. For starters, they’ve got the courage of their convictions. The same aloof, let’s-do-this-and-wrap-by-five atmosphere that makes other modern Christmas movies forgettable isn’t on display here. The creative forces at work — writer-director Richard Curtis for Love Actually, writer David Berenbaum and director Jon Favreau for Elf — aim to mean what they say, and that lack of narrative distance between storyteller and listener makes for a more engaging film. Their methods vary, though, as does the quality of their output. Curtis is mawkish and scattershot, and every happy, weird bounce in Love Actually comes on the heels of a dozen cringe-inducing plot points that are as artificial as you can get. (Your 10-year-old is not in a position to give you life advice; this woman is not exactly the hideous monster people make her out to be; a dozen mediocre stories are not better than two or three really good ones; etc.) The individual plots are wildly hit or miss, but Curtis is swinging for the fences every time. Audiences continue to respond to the film’s cornball nature in large part because of its cheery absurdity. In fact, “cheery absurdity” is a good way to describe Elf, too, an overall much better film that mixes nostalgia for the Rankin/Bass specials of the 1960s and 1970s with rom-com devices and family humor to come up with something that’s consistently sweet and winning. Will Ferrell has done other romantic, wistful movies (Stranger Than Fiction) and plenty about grown men acting like grade schoolers (Step Brothers), but Elf’s fairy-tale world is heartfelt without being fake. Favreau isn’t out to mock Christmas classics, nor is his goal to do some modern, biting, bitter deconstruction. He’s unironically celebrating those works that united so many of us in childhood, which is how it can feel totally right for Buddy to be friends with stop-motion penguins and a narwhal.

The films were also able to stand out from other Christmas films by telling slightly different stories than others in the genre. Elf is nominally about a family, but it’s nothing like the extended-clan dramedies or coming-of-age stories that are popular Christmas story fodder. It’s special, and it’s also impossible to imagine anyone but Ferrell pulling this role off. Buddy the Elf has to be man enough to be a romantic lead but childish enough to feel realistically naive, all the while being sweet but not moronic, caring but not psychotic. That’s a hard line to walk, and the skill with which Ferrell walks it is a huge part of the film’s draw. Similarly, Love Actually looked different because it was able to do the star-studded holiday vignette thing a few years before Garry Marshall repeated it for Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, and because of its subject matter, it’s also very much a comedy for adults. (Or at any rate, people legally old enough to get into an R-rated movie.) Some of its characters are family men and women, but others are drunks, cheats, and your basic horny young people. In a genre littered with films about couples reluctantly going home for the holidays only to Learn Something about themselves and their parents, these two take a slightly different tack.

But perhaps most importantly, they lasted because they were able to carve out their own space in the Christmas story world. Pop culture’s Christmas canon gets updated whenever something comes along that’s both new enough to stand out and direct enough to make a gut-level appeal for holiday spirit. Those new stories are harder to come by than you’d think, though, which is why most Christmas movies recycle what’s come before. How many stories about a father learning the value of his family over the holidays are really just dressed-up versions of A Christmas Carol? Television in recent decades has made hay out of remaking It’s a Wonderful Life in every conceivable form, and even Miracle on 34th Street has been remade a couple times. But when we get something that feels like its own thing — like A Christmas Story, or even those original Rankin/Bass musicals that inspired Elf — we clear space for it on the shelf and add it to the ranks. Elf and Love Actually have thrived as Christmas movies in large part because of what they are, not just the way they look. They can’t be broken down into smaller elements; they’re their own things. It’s almost surprising studios don’t try to break the mold more often instead of just reusing what once worked. Then again, maybe that rarity is part of the charm. After years of coal, every now and then you get an actual gift.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.