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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

17 December

Saturnalia first celebrated, 497BC

On this day in 497BC, the Romans consecrated the new Temple of Saturn and celebrated the feast of Saturnalia for the first time. Saturn was believed to be the god who had ruled in the golden age, when labour could be carried out without back-breaking work, when human beings were not plagued by iniquitous social division. The festival was celebrated with a sacrifice, feasting, partying and gift-giving and continued from 17 to the 23 December. It was a time of free speech and role reversal, of dressing up and hats, of masks and other disguises. Games were also played, gambling was allowed, slaves were treated as equals by their masters. The 23 December, Sigillaria, was the day set aside for the giving of gifts. Children received toys, adults might receive useful gifts, tasty food, perfume or trinkets. Great expense was not required – “it’s the thought that counts” seems to have been the idea. It was a public holiday and all the Republic’s offices were closed. From this distance, it looks strikingly similar to Christmas.

Elf (2003, dir: Jon Favreau)

In the same way that it took the world a while to realise that Mariah Carey had made a classic Christmas record with All I Want for Christmas Is You, it’s taken a few years for people to realise that, with Elf, director Jon Favreau made a classic Christmas movie. Will Ferrell is not the only reason why it’s a classic, but he is the main one. Playing Buddy, the human brought up among elves at the North Pole who is sent back to the human world, Ferrell is funny because he’s Will Ferrell and a very funny man, but also because he’s a big guy (6’ 3” – 1.91m) and the sight of a galumphing grown man with a stubbly chin leaping about in tights and curly-up shoes, well that is funny all on its own. The plot is kind-of Big – the boy/man who saves a company by injecting it with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Heading that company is James Caan, playing off against a lifetime of being a gangster, as our elf’s biological father, a hard-bitten publisher unsure where he’s going to get his next hit book from. Bob Newhart is Buddy’s adoptive dad, Ed Asner is Santa Claus, Zooey Deschanel is the wide-eyed girl that Buddy falls for in an improbably platonic “only in the movies” kind of way, and they’re all just perfect. As is the setting, a not-quite-specific Hollywood Now. So what’s the film’s secret? Favreau’s ability to conjure up wonder – he’s a mile away from the wiseguy cynicism of his previous film, Made. And Favreau would go on to infuse later films such as Zathura and even the first two Iron Man films with the same giddy excitement (as Tony Stark is learning to fly, for example). Plus, as The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage, who organised Elfday (mass simultaneous watching of the film) and turned it into a Twitter phenomenon (@StuHeritage and #elfday), points out, Elf walks the line – it is just sentimental enough to get your heart purring, not so sweet that your pancreas leaves town. The humour helps too, of course.

Why Watch?

  • A Christmas classic
  • Peter Dinklage and Faizon Love are also in it
  • Very funny
  • Because “I am a cotton-headed ninnymoggins”

Elf – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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