After a stressful week of deadlines and exams, I thought it would be relaxing to hunker down with a cozy mug of hot chocolate and watch a holiday movie to get me into a festive mood. The movie, Elf, starring Will Farrell is having its ten year anniversary this year and is a Christmas favorite at my house. As issues related to adoption play a more prevalent part of my life, I began thinking about Buddy the Elf‘s character and the troublesome ways this movie deals with adoption.
Buddy’s “adoption” is problematic from the very beginning. As an infant, he crawls out of his crib and into Santa’s toy bag. This could be analogous for the child commodification of orphans often times perceived as “gifts” to their parents. On a less metaphoric level, this action simply makes Santa Claus’ role even more damaging. Now, not only is he a man who every year on the 25th of December breaks into people’s homes and steals their sweets. He’s also a kidnapper. Santa decides not to return Buddy to the orphanage, but instead passes him along to an older elf who never had children. The informality and total absence of any legal processes is startling and all too similar to the idea of child “re-homing” that Reuters investigated during the summer of 2013 with their special report titled: The Child Exchange. Additionally, the viewers are not shown the orphanage ever again, so it seems as if no one there noticed or were bothered by this missing child.
As Buddy grows up in the North Pole, Papa Elf recounts stories of his childhood. He claims, “Though Buddy grew twice as fast, he wasn’t any different from the other children.” That’s similar to saying, Though I am Asian, I wasn’t really any different from my other schoolmates, when clearly my physical appearance, the make-up of my family, and the place of birth were different. Similarly, Buddy did feel different from his peers. His deep voice, clumsy fingers, and size separated him from the rest of the elves. Frustrated by his inability to assimilate, Buddy proclaims, “I’m the worst toymaker in the world. I’m a cotton-headed ninny muggins.” His elf friends attempt to be supportive of him and reassure him by saying that he’s just “special.” While I don’t believe we should suppress obvious differences that do exist (like Papa Elf did), at the same time I don’t think we should make an effort to romanticize differences by making them “special” or “unique.” Instead we should just learn to embrace the differences present.
It’s Papa Elf’s fear of addressing Buddy’s differences that holds him from telling Buddy that he was “adopted.” Instead of hearing this crucial information from his father and primary caregiver, Buddy, at 30 years old, learns he’s a human by overhearing a conversation. Papa Elf does eventually take the initiative to have this difficult talk with Buddy, but this wouldn’t have had to be such an intense situation if Papa Elf had told Buddy from the very beginning about his origins.
Surprisingly, Papa Elf knows quite a bit about Buddy’s biological family – that his parents were young, had fallen in love, and that his father never knew of his existence. Papa Elf also knows that Buddy’s biological mother, Susan Wells, has already died. Buddy immediately shows interest in finding his first father, and I wonder if he would have been able to meet his first mother had Papa Elf not retained this information for so long.
Though Papa Elf tells Buddy where his biological father works, it is Leon the Snowman who encourages Buddy to look for his father, suggesting it may be the “perfect opportunity to find out who you are.” Meeting his father, though, will only help Buddy discover some missing pieces of his identity. Finding out who Buddy the Elf is as an adopted individual, cannot solely rely on his biology. While Leon’s words of attempted reassurance certainly have their place, I think it should have been Papa Elf’s responsibility to take more of an active role in promoting this reunion. He does tell Buddy that he’ll “always be here for [him].” These words seem to be the most bold, non-prompted piece of dialogue from Papa Elf.
During this scene, there is also a problematic use of the phrase “real dad.” While it’s debated whether or not to use the terms “birth family,” “first family,” or “original family,” the idea of “real parents” needs to escape our vocabulary. By making one set of parents “real,” it automatically invalidates the other. My first mother wasn’t just an incubator for 9 months to produce a child, and my adoptive parents are certainly more than just permanent babysitters. All of my parents have been and continue to be real, and this expression is incredibly frustrating.
On his journey, Buddy has to go through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and through the Lincoln Tunnel, to finally arrive in New York City, where his father lives. Buddy finds his father at work in the Empire State Building, and his reunion is rather horrifying, ending with Buddy being dragged away by security. Neither party can be blamed for this terrible meeting. Walter Hobbs didn’t even know of his son’s existence, and I’m sure the yellow tights and Santa chatter on Buddy’s part didn’t help. Additionally, as co-workers expecting a holiday jingle stand in the office, Walter and Buddy are given no privacy. Though Santa talked to Buddy about human behaviors, it is clear that no one prepared Buddy for the meeting of his father at all. While it’s important to remember that not all reunion stories are “peaches and cream,” there were some missing, necessary actions that could have taken place to perhaps make the meeting more smooth.
Buddy’s repeated attempts to connect with his father and the statement “Just let him know I love him so much and think he’s the greatest dad in the world” display Buddy’s obvious fantasy of a wonderful father figure when Walter has done nothing to deserve such a title of affection. Buddy forlornly says, “I just wanted to meet you, and I thought you might want to meet me,” to which Walter sarcastically replies, “Who wouldn’t want to meet you?” While Walter’s response is unhelpful, his confusion and disbelief are certainly understandable. Walter, like so many other birthfathers out there, were dependent on the child’s mother to tell him of her pregnancy. Much adoption rhetoric excludes birthfathers and criticizes their missing or very passive role in the system. Many times, though, birthfathers’ exclusion is not by their choice. Through Walter’s ignorance of his son’s birth, his film highlights one of first fathers’ struggles in the adoption system.
To make sense of this odd predicament, Walter and Buddy do get DNA tested. Of course, Walter is displeased with the positive results. The doctor tells Walter that “he’s probably just reverting to a stage of childlike dependency.” This statement combined with Buddy’s previous behaviors and exuberant demeanor are supposed to make Buddy’s character very endearing. While he is definitely relatable for children watching the movie, it too strangely matches the perception of adoptees as perpetual children. Considering that Buddy is a 30-something year old man and, for this movie’s purposes, an “adoptee,” this film plays a part in continuing the stereotype and humoring the uncomfortable realities of being looked at as a child even into adulthood. (The Perpetual Child: Adult Adoptee Anthology, Dismantling the Stereotype)
Buddy’s expectations of having a warm, friendly human family are unmet until he meets Emily, Walter’s wife. She is everything Walter is not, and plays a crucial role helping him adjust. Though taken aback at first, she says, “It’s a little complicated, but it’s nothing we can’t handle,” and welcomes him to stay with their family. She is the only one in the family who is constantly affirming of Buddy and doesn’t ask Buddy to prove anything to them to earn her hospitality and kindness.
Even her kindness and eventual friendship with half-brother, Michael, can’t stop his rejection by Walter. After Buddy makes a scene at Walter’s work, Walter yells at him, “You, get the hell out of here. I don’t care where you go. I don’t care that you’re an elf. I don’t care that you’re nuts. I don’t care that you’re my son! GET OUT OF MY LIFE NOW!” This denial and betrayal of family prompts Buddy to run away. Before doing so, he leaves a note that reads: “I’m sorry I ruined your lives . . . I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.” This feeling is common for adoptees. Personally, people often think it’s so great that I have two worlds open to me, but neither the Chinese or American worlds are completely accepting. Instead of belonging in two, I don’t quite fit in either. What separates my situation from Buddy’s is that I have always had a safe place to land. Whether it be words of mutual understanding from other adoptees, comfort from my family, or self-motivation driven from a sense of internal confidence, Buddy has none of these resources available to him.
Feeling completely absent of a home, Buddy repeats the thought, I don’t belong anywhere. While shutting his eyes, leaning over a bridge may simply be a coincidental place for reflection, it mirrors many films’ scenes of attempted suicide (like that of another holiday classic: George Bailey’s attempt in the film It’s A Wonderful Life). This scene has added gravity when considering the recent research on the adoption connection to suicide. A study published by the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in September of 2013 asked whether adoption status represented a risk of suicide attempt for adopted and non-adopted offspring living in the United States. The results suggested that the odds of a reported suicide attempt were about 4 times greater in adoptees compared with non-adoptees.
Luckily for Buddy, Santa came into sight at that very moment, in obvious need of assistance. Santa claims that he needs an elf’s help to fix his sleigh. While Buddy protests his identity as an elf, Santa reaffirms him by saying, “Buddy, you’re more of an elf than anyone I ever met.” A few moments later, Buddy runs into Walter. He tries to take back his previous statements and tells Buddy, “I don’t want you to leave. You’re my son; I love you.” This second reassurance is much needed, but seems like a very small act after such harmful words were spat out before.
Walter still questions his son’s identity by asking Santa if Buddy is an elf. Buddy seems to be content in his identity now, and he pitches in, “actually I’m adopted.” Earlier when asked about his identity, Buddy struggled to explain, “I’m an elf. Well, technically, I’m a human. But I was raised by elves.” This transition shows Buddy’s new-found confidence in “finding out who he really is” – something between the two worlds of elf and human. With the help of his girlfriend and biological family, Buddy was able to save Christmas. This film ends on a positive note as it shows Buddy essentially as a repatriate adoptee. He continues to celebrate the holidays with his biological father and occasionally goes up to the North Pole with his girlfriend, Jovie, and their child to visit Papa Elf.
Though this film is certainly problematic in relation to adoption, the movie does its share to spread holiday cheer, often times in a very comical way. I think as long as the problems in this film are understood, it can still be considered a Christmas favorite. Perhaps to remedy the adoption discourse in this film, some discussion questions could follow. For some suggestions of questions, reference The Adoption at the Movies Guide: Elf.
- #13 Elf (stedsman.com)
- 17 Questions “Elf” Left Unanswered (buzzfeed.com)
- Elf (boyer8526.wordpress.com)
- Elf (shainajo10.wordpress.com)
- 18 Days of Christmas: Elf (frankiecreviews.wordpress.com)