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Elf and Cross-Cultural Issues

This Christmas season, you will watch the film “Elf” at least 37 times. Or, perhaps the opportunity to watch it will present itself as many times a day. As I write this, it’s playing in the background of my home. And why not? It’s charming, humorous, and a perfect showcase for Will Farrell’s comedy. Great stuff indeed. However, did you know that “Elf” is among the most brilliant depictions of cross-cultural issues available?

No really…and stop laughing at me.

The tension of cross-cultural interaction is this. Two people, from different cultural customs (be they familial, ethnic, or religious customs) live, work, and interact alongside one another. Their cultural norms appear bizarre, or uncomfortable to the other person.  Inevitably, people clash. When things appear “abnormal,” a common reaction is fear, stereotyping, joking, or otherwise harmful behavior. As much as Christianity is about inclusion thanks to the gospel message, we often struggle deeply in this area (our vast number of denominations serving as one of many proofs).

So back to “Elf” and its implications as a cross-cultural movie.  Ferrell comes from a far away land with his own customs, cultural practices, and way of life.  He fervently values Christmas and all that it represents (at least without the Jesus part).  However, he decides to leave his homeland and integrate himself into American/New York culture. He is an immigrant.

Still laughing at the whole idea of this? Consider the whole first sequence when he arrives in Manhattan. We laugh because Will Ferrell is funny, but also consider his circumstances. He is waving back at men and women hailing taxi cabs, thinks the gum on the subway is free candy, assumes flyers being passed out are gifts, and uses revolving doors as amusement park rides. Consider also the way he dresses – he wears clothing from his native homeland. To him, New Yorkers are the ones dressed bizarrely. Or the doctors visit – where he eats cotton balls because he thinks they are candy. He is an alien.

Consider also his integration into the culture. Throughout the course of the film, he transforms from his elf clothing to a trench coat and long pants. He begins holding down a job in the mailroom, and he reduces the amount of ways he expresses his specific language. He even changes his food habits – remember that the 4 food groups of elves are candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup.

Buddy then becomes integrated and accepted into the culture, especially when his differences are realized as gifts and talents. We first see this when lends his impressive skills at the department store he inadvertently becomes an employee of, or when he uses his incredible strengths as a snowball throwing artist. His stepbrother at the end of the encounter says, “Where did you say you were from again?”

All I’m saying is, you don’t always need “Crash” to develop some empathy when it comes to cross-cultural conflict through the medium of film. “Elf” is a great example of a humorous way to deliver something more potent underneath its entertainment exterior. So, this season when you inevitably watch the film, consider how it illuminates cross-cultural issues and diversity. You may be surprised at how the film delivers.

…And stop laughing at me for making this observation.

Merry Christmas!


Well said, Chris. I think, especially for the, say older grade school thru high school crowd it would be an excellent source of stimulating coversation about cultural norms...really fun too, which would capture this age groups attention. I love the idea and your observations...and it's really one of my fav holiday flicks. I may have to watch it on Netflix tonight thanks to reading your blog. Merry Chrustchove Randoob (can you tell me where that quote comes from?) Ann

Great post - Elf is one of my favorite Christmas movies and I appreciate seeing it in a different light! Next time I have an "Elf" viewing party, I'm totally going to crib this post for a post-movie conversation. ;)

I'm a year late with this - sorry! And I'm NOT laughing at you but I've been laughed AT because I've been arguing the SAME CASE to my colleagues since the film came out! Now I have back-up!!!!

I am a high school French teacher and WOG and have argued that showing Elf in my class is NOT a waste of time but a chance to show kids in a fun exaggerated way what it's like trying to adjust to another culture. I am going to show the film again this year and, if you don't mind, use your well-written argument as my reason for showing it! It IS a good learning tool and a fun Christmas movie (albeit without any mention of Jesus - He gets His plug in my class in a Christmas Quiz I give based on Matthew 2. I use the fact that France is a Catholic - more in name than in practice - country to give the quiz. =)

Anyway, thanks for your great write-up! I appreciate your eloquence in presenting your side and will make sure to give you full credit for your work! Merry Christmas!

Megan, I think great minds think alike :) I hope that your students enjoy your use of the film, and I am humbled you would consider my article!

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Christopher is a Marriage and Family Therapist completing his license in Southern California.  He loves to write about films, make music, and spend time with his lovely wife.