If you really, properly think about it, most Christmas films begin with a disappointing dad doing something… well, disappointing.
The Santa Clause: could Scott Calvin have been any more neglectful of Charlie before knocking Santa off his roof (which by the way, is the grinchiest thing a dad could ever do at Christmas)? Arthur Christmas: Arthur's father and brother demean him at every possible turn, and do little to redeem themselves throughout. Die Hard: John McClane might be the hero of the Christmas party, but as a dad and husband it's clear he leaves a lot to be desired. There's a trend here, to be sure. Don't ask me why. I don't make the rules.
It's always difficult to write a believable redemption arc for a disappointing dad, but especially so in a holiday film. Overshoot the sentimentality and you have a saccharine storyline that leans too heavily into the unrealistic idea of a perfect Christmas. Make the dad too disappointing in the first place, and there's no way enough ground can be covered in two short hours for him to truly redeem himself.
But of all the disappointing dads in Christmas films, few were given a redemption arc as good as Buddy's birth father Walter in Elf, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Why? Because Elf knew its audience.
There's a level of safety to Elf that allows it to explore the complex relationship between Walter and Buddy. Knowing the audience was full of kids and families, Elf knew that this wasn't the place to dissect difficult familial relationships in too intense a depth. Sure, Buddy's quest to find his birth father was a significant element of the film, but it was wrapped up in so much more than that: Buddy's mission to find his place in the world, for example, or his quest to spread the spirit of Christmas.
Director Jon Favreau – known at the time not as Happy Hogan in the Avengers films, but as a beloved comedian – knew Elf's ultimate goal wasn't solely to show a sweet story of father and son reuniting: this storyline simply made more room for comedy using the miscommunication trope between a father and son whose natures are, quite literally, poles apart.
Elf touched on the sentimentality of Walter's redemption and acceptance of Buddy, but never went over the top with it. That's not to say that sentimentality doesn't have its place, but this is no Miracle on 34th Street. Elf's awareness of its audience is why it nailed this trope so completely. It offered safety and sentimentality without falling into the saccharine. And yet Walter's redemption somehow remained rounded and realistic.
So how exactly did Elf do all of this? The key, of course, is Buddy's adopted father: the iconic Papa Elf. Wholesome, loving, and entirely supportive of Buddy's mission to find his place in the human world, Papa Elf epitomises everything that fatherly love should be.
Papa Elf offers a dynamic to Elf that The Santa Clause lack, perhaps the film which deals most closely with another disappointing dad redemption. In The Santa Clause's case, however, Charlie's step-father Neil is so wholly the scientific, sceptical antithesis of everything Christmas stands for that when Scott disappoints Charlie, we feel sadness that neither his father nor step-father are giving him the magical childhood he deserves. There's a bereftness of Christmas spirit that Charlie encounters for someone so young: one that Buddy will never face.
Knowing that Papa Elf has shown Buddy the blueprint for what fatherly love should be offers an element of safety to Elf. In the moments where Walter is at his worst, we know Buddy will never be alone. That he will always have Papa Elf to turn to, which we ultimately see at the end of the film when Buddy and Jovie are shown with their new family in New York, and his first family in the North Pole.
So what of Walter and Buddy's relationship itself, then? When they do eventually meet, Walter rejects Buddy at every possible turn. But crucially, it always backfires and Walter therefore becomes the butt of the joke. Rather than feeling sympathy or pain for Buddy, who is often completely oblivious to what's going on anyway, every moment which has the potential for pain simply becomes a farce. The fact that Walter always ends up suffering far more than Buddy does was a genius way to twist his rejection so the audience never ends up hating him, even in his more unkind moments.
Additionally, Elf is told from Buddy's perspective unlike the other films tackling the redemption trope which often focus on the father's story. This means we only ever see Walter through Buddy's hopeful eyes, preserving a level of childlike innocence which keeps the film light and in keeping with the young audience it targeted.
While Elf is not without its flaws, Buddy's childlike reverence for Walter really stops the film getting bogged down in a potentially overly sentimental plotline. Sure, Walter's eventual acceptance of Buddy slots into place a little too swiftly and conveniently. But its saving grace is the simple fact that Walter's acceptance of Buddy is driven by his love for his other son, Michael. Seeing how much Buddy means to Michael sends Walter's heart into serious defrost mode (and if we're being honest, Buddy has already been chipping away at that icy heart for quite some time by this point anyway).
Despite being a little too swift, Walter's change of heart therefore still feels within the realms of possibility. It's solidified by the fact that Michal continues to drive Walter's redemption after this point, too, encouraging him to sing with everyone else at the park to fuel Santa's sleigh and further imbuing his father with the child-like spirit of Christmas. A strong force of love would have had to drive Walter's acceptance of Buddy so quickly, and there is no force stronger than love for your child.
Making Michael the catalyst for this change was a stroke of genius by Elf's writer. David Berenbaum. And perhaps the reason that Elf struck such a wonderful balance between heartfelt emotion and comedy is down to Berenbaum's expert writing.
Berenbaum has previously stated that “the emotional drive of the film is the search for the father”, explaining that he related to this theme due to his powerful relationship with his own father who passed away when he was young. The fact that the relationship between Walter and Buddy was written out of Berenbaum's love for his own father really shines through in Elf, even in its more helpless moments.
There's a reason that, now in its 20th year, Elf is already considered a timeless classic. It's hilarious, wholesome, and has a heartfelt emotional core. Who's to say whether this would have been the case had it struck the balance of Walter and Buddy's relationship differently? Certainly not us. All we can say is that whoever was behind Walter Hobbs' redemption arc is no cotton-headed ninny-muggins, that's for sure.