Sunday, December 23, 2012

Adoption Movie Guide: Elf

Happy Holidays! Join me in examining what a seasonal favorite has to say about adoption!Let's head to the North Pole and visit Elf.

A baby was accidentally abducted from an orphanage, and as far as we know, no one there seemed to notice. Fortunately, the bag he crawled into belonged to Santa Claus. Instead of returning the baby to the orphanage, Santa gives him to “Papa Elf.” The baby is given the name “Buddy” because of the brand of diaper he was wearing when he was found. As an adult, Buddy overhears that he is not an elf. Papa Elf tells him about his birth history. Buddy sets off to New York City to find his unsuspecting birth father, Walter. His welcome is not a warm one.
How is This Relevant to Adoption? 
Buddy is (more or less) adopted. He was raised at the North Pole by Papa Elf, but feels as though he does not fit in. He learns of his adoption, and then sets off to New York City with fantastic dreams of how he will spend his days with Walter. However, Walter denies him, dislikes him and sends him away.  Ultimately, though, Buddy reconciles with Walter, marries a human woman, and still visits with Papa Elf from time to time.

Strong Points
Papa Elf waits too long to tell Buddy about his history, but once he does share, he shares thoroughly.  Papa Elf is very supportive of Buddy’s desire to reconnect with Walter, and affirms “I’ll always be here for you.”

Walter has married a very nice woman, who encourages him to include Buddy in the family. In many movies, an outcast-character (like Buddy) is only accepted when he proves his worth. Buddy was unconditionally accepted by his Walter’s wife, and eventually by Walter as well. Santa affirms that Buddy is very much an elf.

Walter eventually proclaims that Buddy is “my son, and I love you.”


Papa Elf acknowledges that Buddy had some difficulties blending in with the Elf culture, and we hear Buddy expressing at the North Pole that “everyone has the same talents, except for me.” The feeling of “not fitting in” may be relevant to some adoptees. Unfortunately, Buddy hears other elves complaining about him, and when he goes to New York City, he finds he does not fit in there, either. Buddy finds himself between two cultures, but a part of neither.  Buddy struggles to explain his identity to a child, “I’m an elf. Well, technically, I’m a human raised by elves.”

Elf is delivered in a light-hearted tone, but some words passed between Buddy and Walter are heart-wrenching nonetheless. Buddy says, “I just wanted to meet you and thought you might want to meet me.” Walter later says, “I don’t care that you’re an elf, I don’t care that you’re my son. Get out of my life, now!” Although Walter later apologizes, the line has the potential to be very painful to some viewers. Buddy’s response is drastic – he writes a note apologizing for ruining their lives, and finishes it, “I don’t belong here; I don’t belong anywhere,” and heads for a bridge. Before it’s obvious what might be about to happen, Santa appears on the scene.

 Weak Points

Buddy says that he was adopted, but he was really accidentally taken from an orphanage, and then not returned. His name was given to him by way of a misunderstanding. I’m not quite sure how Papa Elf knew so much of his birth history.

When Buddy sets off to New York City a character suggests that it is a prime opportunity for Buddy to “find out who you are.” But really, Buddy’s identity is determined to a great extent by the life he’s lived at the North Pole.

Buddy’s first meeting with his Walter with Walter calling security and having Buddy escorted from the building.

Questions for Discussion after the movie

Is Buddy an Elf, a Human, both, or something else? Why?

Walter apologized for what he said to Buddy. Was the apology enough to clear Walter of wrongdoing? Was it enough to heal Buddy’s hurt feelings? Is it possible that there are sometimes different answers to those questions? What should Walter do if Buddy’s feelings are still hurt?

If you could spend a whole day – just as a family – what would you do?

A Project:

Buddy really wanted to spend time with Walter. Why not carve out a whole day of creative time together for you and your children. Work together to schedule the day, then do it! Do something season, something quiet, something creative. Enjoy each other.

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  1. I love this movie, in fact I just watched it yesterday! As far as Papa Elf knowing so much about his birth story, I would assume it is because Santa "knows when you are sleeping, and knows when you are awake, knows if you've been bad or good" and told Papa Elf the story... I can totally see why Santa would just keep Buddy, since he was at an orphanage, where they didn't notice he was missing...

  2. I love Elf. It never fails to make me laugh, but now that I'm an adoptive parent, I see such films in a new light wondering how such stories might affect my daughter one day. From what I've read, many adoptees are offended that adoption is often used as a way to create humor at the expense of the adoptee, and I can understand that sentiment. Society tends to forever view adoptees as children instead of acknowledging that they become adults with a need and right to understand all of their story. I realize it's a comedy, but adoptive parents should approach such films with care and lots of discussion afterward. Thanks for providing these reviews as resources. :-)

  3. Rachel, I've thought that maybe that was how they knew... Santa just knows everything. I'm concerned that the orphanage didn't seem to notice that Buddy was missing. Camille - yes! Most movies show an imperfect portrayal of adoption. This doesn't mean that we should avoid any movie that gets it somewhat wrong - just that we should know the movie ahead of time and be proactive about talking with the adoptee :)

  4. I'm an adopted person and Elf is my all time favorite "adoption movie." I love Buddy's earnestness in trying to find his birth family. The rejection by his birth father is spot-on for so many adult adoptees who seek reunion. And yet there is openness from other members of that family - his half brother connects with him. I find it so endearing and funny and yet heartbreaking at the same time. It's one of the adoption movies that makes me, as an adopted person, feel truly "seen" even in what is meant to be a light comedy.

  5. Susan, thanks for this feedback. I'm often struck by how powerful movies can be. What you said about this film -- Buddy's earnest search for his birth family, and the mixed reception he received - rejection by some, acceptance by others -- reminds me of Antwoine Fisher - have you seen that one?


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