The film, "Elf," released November 2003 by New Line Cinema, may be a crowd-pleasing Hollywood comedy, but I got more out of it than a few laughs. It also contains a surprisingly touching tale of adoption search and reunion.
Will Ferrell plays one of Santa's (Ed Asner's) most unique elves, standing at least twice as tall as the tallest toy maker in the bunch. When Santa was visiting the orphanage where Buddy was a bubbly, wide-eyed baby, Buddy crawled into Santa's bag and stole away to the North Pole. Because Santa and the elves are such big-hearted folk, who also have the omnipresence of mind to know that the baby was parentless with no prospects for adoption, they decided to keep the extra-large little one with them.
An elvish Bob Newhart took Buddy in as one of his own, even though the baby rapidly outgrew his convenient lap-size. This didn't stop the pair from creating a family bond as tight as any other elf - or human - family. They remained a loving father-son team for many years.
When Buddy grew up to be a toy maker himself, he found he could do a fair job. Still, he was a little slow, and a little different than the elves in other ways. He was physically enormous compared to them, and his skills seemed to lie in areas other than singing along with the group as each elf whipped out hundreds of toys every day.
Buddy knew he had learned much from his family and community, but time would reveal that something was missing from his life. Buddy always knew that he had another father out in the human world, but he had never felt a need to search for him. It was a combination of feeling a little like a black sheep in the bunch, and the revelation that his birthfather actually had made the "Naughty List" that year, that urged Buddy to try to connect with his family of origin.
Santa, the elves, and Papa Elf all agreed that it was time for Buddy to make this journey of self-discovery. Buddy just didn't know for sure where he belonged, and perhaps he could help his father make the "Nice List" again. He set out alone, in the uncertainty of darkness, to New York City, where he hoped to find the Empire State building and his birthfather working inside.
The film takes on a David Letterman-like feel, as the elvishly dressed man makes his way naively through the stores and streets of New York City, either bear-hugging or flashing a huge grin at everyone he meets. He gets thrown out of the Empire State Building after barging in and informing his birthfather (in an impromptu, off-key song) that he is his long-lost son. Though Walter, played by James Caan, fondly remembers Buddy's mother, he is reluctant to believe the story. For all Walter knows, Buddy is another con artist off the street looking to cash in on Walter's wealth.
Still, Walter can't shake the notion that Buddy must be telling the truth - otherwise, how could he know about his long-lost girlfriend, with whom he'd felt inexplicably connected throughout the years? Walter is intrigued, and Buddy is very persistent. When Buddy wins the affection/sympathy of Walter's wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and preteen son, Michael (Daniel Tay), Walter is persuaded to indulge Buddy's obvious delusion in hopes that Buddy will play out his fantasy and return to a more "normal" way of life.
In typical Hollywood fashion, the oddball character, whom the other characters want to train to behave more acceptably, actually helps Walter and family to loosen up instead. They begin to care less about others' opinions, and as a result, they discover that they can have a lot more fun than they usually allow themselves to have.
The real discovery for Buddy was not in finding his birthfamily. Rather, because Buddy must be who he has grown up to be in the context of his birthfamily, he ends up with a much better sense of who he is individually. First, he discovers what he has inherited from his biological relatives. Then Buddy is finally able to see how his elf family has influenced his character. He sees that Santa and the elves, known primarily for being their singing, jolly selves, have inspired those same qualities in him. He finally discovers how he relates to his adoptive family.
Buddy eventually knows both of his fathers and finds room for each of them in his life. The fathers, in turn, accept each other's place in their son's life. But the story gets even richer when you figure Santa Claus into the equation. For it is the arrival of Santa on Christmas Eve that Buddy longs for, and he responds as happily to Santa arriving on his sleigh as a son would to his father coming home for dinner after a long day at work.
The question then becomes, from an adoption and reunion point of view, "Where does Buddy really fit in?" Does he want to go back to his adoptive family, with whom he has spent his whole life, or does he want to stay with his newly discovered birthfamily, with whom he shares so much physically, and in which he has so much more to teach and to learn?
My response, and the filmmaker's response as well, is to ask, "Why does it have to be one or the other?" Buddy has discovered another extension of family. Just like he doesn't choose Santa over Papa Elf, he doesn't have to choose between one family and the other. He can, and does, have both.