- “Elf” is a modern Christmas classic despite the fact that it mocks cognitively disabled people.
- Buddy’s (Will Ferrell) disability is not explicitly stated, but it’s heavily implied.
- To make a funny movie with disabled characters, just include disabled people in the joke.
“Elf” became a modern holiday classic almost instantly after it premiered in 2003. But almost 20 years later, it still baffles me how offensive it is to cognitively disabled adults.
It stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a man raised as an elf in the North Pole and ignorant of the human way of life. When he accidentally overhears that he’s human, he goes to New York City in search of his birth father, Walter Hobbes (James Caan), a grinchy publisher in need of some lessons in love and kindness.
Buddy’s enthusiasm for Christmas is extreme, even when compared to his elf “peers,” so it’s understandable that the festive spirit of the movie oozes from the screen and into moviegoers’ hearts. In fact, the film has grossed over $223 million worldwide, per Box Office Mojo.
But I couldn’t sit through “Elf” for more than 10 minutes without feeling offended. After forcing myself to sit through the whole film, I’m even more confident that purposefully or not, “Elf” makes fun of cognitively disabled adults through Buddy.
‘Elf’ tells the story of a man raised by elves struggling to exist in a world that wasn’t made for him
We are told very early on in “Elf” that there is something that sets Buddy apart from other elves beyond the fact that he’s human.
Although Buddy’s body doesn’t fit on elf furniture, his physical body isn’t the issue. It’s clearly established that there is a cognitive difference between Buddy and other elves.
He’s referred to as “special” several times while at the North Pole. His toy-making skills are not up to par and he has to take a post reserved for “special” elves.
“Special” is a term often used to otherize people with physical and cognitive disabilities. It’s often code for “different and lesser than” everyone else.
He’s also the only “elf” in the North Pole who doesn’t realize he’s human. So, Buddy’s intelligence isn’t that of a “normal” elf, or else he wouldn’t be so blindsided by the revelation.
It only gets worse from there.
When he does make it to Manhattan, Buddy’s own father Walter never stops using derogatory terms against him. At the doctor’s office where he forces Buddy to take a paternity test, Walter tells the doctor Buddy is “certifiably insane.” Talking to his wife later in the film, Walter says his son is a “deranged elf man.” Even at the end of the film when Walter tells Buddy he loves him, he mentions that Buddy is “chemically imbalanced.”
“Elf” can’t really be a heart-warming story of acceptance if Buddy is never truly embraced for who he is by one of the most important people in his life.
If Buddy does have a disability, the movie never explicitly says so — and it would have been stronger if it had
I’m not trying to destroy a modern Christmas classic, but as a physically disabled woman who spent part of my childhood with cognitively disabled kids and adults, “Elf” offends me.
It’s never explicitly stated that Buddy has a disability, only strongly implied. If “Elf” had stated a cognitive difference, it would have had to take responsibility for its offensive language. That would mean erasing a lot of verbal and physical comedy that we’re meant to laugh at — but none of it is funny to me.
Buddy eating cotton balls, running toward moving taxi cabs, and even exposing a department store Santa as fake doesn’t inspire me to laugh. Instead, these moments made me wish he had a real support system in his life.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to joke about disability. You just have to let disabled people know that they’re in on the joke, too. The easiest way to do that is to cast disabled actors in disabled roles.
Or the film could’ve at least had a character confront Walter about the harsh words he constantly hurls at Buddy. But that moment never comes.
By the end of the film, thankfully Buddy is capable of standing up for himself. Had writer David Berenbaum truly committed to empowering Buddy, it would have been a rare and important gesture of support toward the disabled community. Instead, “Elf” falls back on tired tropes for laughs.
Someone’s differences should never be the core of a joke
Like Buddy, some cognitively disabled adults believe in Santa and the magic of Christmas. Their joy brings the people who love them joy. They’d likely never be blatantly insulted by people who understand the value they bring to the world.
Buddy is a hero and savior of Christmas in “Elf,” there is no denying that, but he could have also been his own champion. Instead, his implied disability is an afterthought in the film, which is perhaps a sad metaphor for how disabled people are often treated as an afterthought by society.
In the future, filmmakers should carefully consider the way disabled characters are depicted in film and on TV, even when making a supposedly fun Christmas movie.
And they should also remember it’s never funny to make someone’s disability the core of a joke. The sooner we accept that as a society, the sooner someone will be able to make a modern Christmas classic that is actually worthy of the love that “Elf” receives.