Working in the retail book business for so many years, I’ve seen my share of weird stuff. I’ve seen cookbooks written by Coolio. I’ve seen Twilight‘s popularity reach such an apex that we have a “Teen Paranormal Romance” section. Not only are there Nascar romance novels that come out two per month, but every year we get at least one Nascar Christmas romance novel. Still, few aspects are as head-scratching as the book/kit known as Elf on the Shelf.
Elf on the Shelf is deemed a new holiday tradition and makes enough money that they may not be kidding. When it first hit the scene, we underestimated it and sold out immediately. Over the past few years, we’ve sold hundreds of units. But what is Elf on the Shelf, you ask? Created by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, the kit comes with a smiling and leering toy elf. There’s a book that explains the backstory and has a space for you to write the elf’s chosen name. Rather than play up the idea that Santa is omnipotent and knows if you’ve been naughty or nice through his… crystal ball… or Professor Xavier telepathy or whatever it is, it’s shown that he gets the intel from his elves. This disturbing little creature vacantly stares at your children all day in the weeks leading up to Christmas and when nobody’s looking, he tells Santa what the score is. The kids are also meant to tell the elf what it is they want. The parent is supposed to move the elf around every day to give the illusion that he’s in some way sentient while the children are warned NOT to touch him else it might remove his magic powers. In other words, don’t touch it or you will realize this is a rickety sham.
The whole concept bewilders me because of the hoops one has to jump through to make it work. The Santa myth has just enough inventive magic and reasonable doubt that a kid can go for years without questioning it. I can’t really understand how most kids don’t call BS on this one if they’re old enough to even talk. The holes in logic are legion. If it’s only checking up on kids between the end of November to the end of December, does that mean you’re allowed to be a total bastard in July? If mom and dad just brought home Elf on the Shelf for the first time, how did this whole Santa thing work before this? What’s the point of having kids tell an inanimate object about what they want if the parents won’t hear it? Santa is at least represented as a talking human being at malls, which holds more water to the immersion than a doll that doesn’t even have joints.
And more than anything else, it’s creepy. Both in concept and appearance. I’ve even had a parent return the item a couple weeks ago because her children found it creepy. But you know what? I’m okay with that. I hold no ill will towards the product for the same reason I hold no ill will towards Twilight or Jeph Loeb comics or any other book I’m supposed to look down on. It’s the retail business. These little guys pay the bills for me and my extended family. Just existing doesn’t raise my ire.
It’s the promotional video that does it. Elf on the Shelf is such a big deal that during the holidays, we have a DVD player set up to hype it. The video lasts three and a half minutes, is annoying and changes tone in the audio enough times that it’s impossible to mentally redirect it into background noise. Just hearing that thing on loop again and again is enough to drive anyone insane after a couple hours. Make it a month during the most stressful time to work and you’re in even worse shape.
This year, the boxes feature an ad for Elf on the Shelf Presents An Elf’s Story, a brand new animated movie featured on CBS on the night of Black Friday while at the same time released on DVD and blu-ray. After all the mental trauma this thing’s caused, I knew somebody at the store had to sit down and sit through this. That man had to be me. And so, a couple days after it aired, I mentally prepared myself the way one does to clean the cat’s litter box when they know they’ve waited a couple days longer than they should have and I pressed play.
The thing to know is that I didn’t go into this set on hating it. I never do for these kind of reviews. I may set my standards low, but I’m open to being wrong. Plus I love Christmas specials in general. Unfortunately… this is not a very good Christmas special.
It starts of rather nicely with the opening credits. It reminds us that, hey, this is based on a book that you can buy and then shows an elf racing around the North Pole with a big stack of letters as he runs under reindeer, into Santa’s office and puts the letters through a cute little Rube Goldberg device. It’s off to a good start, albeit the CGI looks more Playstation 1 than Playstation 3. As he leaves, a letter comes loose and is caught by another elf. This elf is our protagonist. He hops onto Santa’s desk and gives him the letter.
The dialogue here is kind of weird. The animation is incredibly expressive and the guy voicing Santa does a good job, but the guy voicing the elf can’t hold up. His inflections change thrice over mid-sentence while the ham levels reach awkward levels. Since they only have twenty minutes of cartoon to go, they get right into the thick of things and talk about the kid who wrote the letter, Taylor McTuttle. He’s deemed a “special case” because he isn’t sure he believes. Oh crap! That kid’s an atheist! GET HIM!
Oh, wait. They aren’t talking about God. At least, I don’t think they are. Taylor writing a letter to Santa when he doesn’t really believe in him is kind of odd, but so is Santa knowing the ins and outs of Taylor’s mind when he hasn’t even read the letter yet. What does he need these elves for again anyway? Hell, what does he need the letters for?
Our elf asks about how it happens that someone cannot believe and Santa, in his infinite wisdom, explains, “Well… sometimes it just does.” Thanks for that exposition, big guy. The elf excitedly says that he can help without coming up with a single piece of elaboration and Santa happily gives him the assignment on being Taylor’s scout elf. The elf runs off to the drop off point, where we meet his friends.
The three leaning over the railing our the protagonist’s friends. You might notice that I haven’t even give you the main character’s name yet. That’s because he’s yet to have one. That’s up to the McTuttles to come up with. Good God. What kind of Hell is this guy living in? They rarely give you a good look at any of the background elves, but they’re all the same models per gender, only with occasionally different hair and skin color about three choices for eye designs. How does one live in a society where nearly everyone looks the same and has no name to go by? How do his friends even recognize him?
I should note that the elves only appear to be white or black. I think I MAY have seen a latino elf in the background at one point, that could have been my eyes playing tricks on me. The reason for this is because there are two versions of the Elf on the Shelf kit: light skinned and dark skinned. The dark skinned ones are rarer and don’t come off so much as black elves as they do as elves who have spent time in the tanning machine and have orange eyes. They don’t make female elves, but decided to make a couple extra bucks by marketing this.
It’s a skirt. For your elf. To make him a her. Yes. Not that I’m judging anyone’s orientation, but that is kind of messed up for an accessory.
Back to the story. Our hero talks to his friends in a scene with some questionable editing as he tries to whisper that Taylor McTuttle doesn’t believe and all the elves in a one-mile radius gasp. Then when he says he’s going to help, they applaud a little too immediately. The four nameless friends discuss their assignments. One is being shipped to a bookstore (HINT HINT VIEWERS!) and… oh, sorry. That’s all they get to talk about. Time for them to reenact the animated segment from the Elf on the Shelf promotional video.
So far the special has been doofy, but not too bad. The real turning point for me came during this sequence where the box the elf is placed in is explicitly the Elf on the Shelf box they use in stores. Right down to the tagline “a Christmas Tradition”. Granted, it appears like that in the original video and I guess they want to go for accuracy in the actual product, but it’s right here that it becomes concrete that this isn’t meant to be a real Christmas special. This is strictly a 22-minute commercial. I know the season and most cartoons are about consumerism, but even something like Transformers and Masters of the Universe never had a shot as blatant as this.
It even has the authors and illustrator mentioned. Cripes.
The box is sent to the McTuttles and Taylor’s little sisters are completely excited. Taylor is much too cool for newly-created Christmas traditions and doesn’t give a damn. The father reads from the book and notes that our elf needs a name. Taylor suggests Stinkypants and his parents skirt past that outburst by “singing” ideas for names. By that I mean they speak rhymes over music. Taylor at one point comes up with Chippey, which is ignored until one of his sisters comes up with the same name and everyone says how great an idea it is. Hence, our hero’s name is Chippey.
At night, Chippey escapes the captivity of his box and teaches himself how to fly. It’s a rough start, but he gets the hang of it easily enough. It’s then that in plain view, he discovers a photo of Taylor on Santa’s lap. He hopes that maybe he can get Taylor to remember that feeling. Then he’s off to report to Santa. Back at the North Pole, he meets up with his buddies who all have names. The girl elf is Snowflake, the black elf is Zort and the blond one is Wordsworth Longfellow Byron Keats Whitman Frost the Third. Snowflake explains that Wordsworth’s family must love poetry, then explains what poetry actually is. Wordsworth takes a stab at being a poet on the spot and fails miserably.
The elves then start a musical number about how this Christmas is “Extravaganzalorious” where all the elves dance together. Here it’s even more apparent that the background designs are copy and paste. There’s also a moment where Snowflake points her ass out at the other three and they all fall over from it. That’s… kind of unexpected for a children’s cartoon, but okay. Chippey enters Santa’s office and scene suddenly ends.
The next day, Taylor’s sisters are searching for Chippey and find him on a shelf before they’re called off by their mother. Chippey had chosen the spot so that Taylor would notice the picture of himself with Santa, which, I should remind you, was in plain sight. Taylor laughs off what he used to look like and then cautiously whispers to ask Chippey if he’s real. He gets no answer, so he shrugs and leaves. Chippey frowns and says that this is going to be harder than he thought. Huh? THAT was your master plan? Show him a picture? That’s the entirety of your repertoire?
Back at the North Pole, he discusses the problems with his buddies. He goes with the obvious and brings up that he wishes he could just fly around the room to prove he’s real, but Snowflake quickly talks him down.
“Chippey, you know you can’t do that, right?”
“It’s not real belief if they don’t feel it in their heart. You can’t see Christmas magic. You have to FEEL it!”
THE KID! MET! SANTA CLAUS! You established that! There’s photographic evidence and everything! How is that going by the rules? Or are you trying to tell us that it wasn’t Santa but a guy dressed as him at the mall? Come on, cartoon. I dare you to open that can of worms.
I have to say, by this point I’m starting to notice an interesting subtext in the special about Christian beliefs. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but a lot of the dialogue does seem like the kind of thing where if you tilt your head and narrow your eyes, you can see a religious take on it. I’m not a religious guy myself, but considering how it’s become controversial to even bring up the J-man in regards to a TV special about a holiday based on him, this isn’t such a bad thing.
Yet it’s still bupkis because this is just a paper-thin explanation to help sell the product. Why doesn’t the elf talk to you or fly when you’re looking? Because it’s blatantly a lifeless doll that they want children to believe in so much that they’re straining to make it so. In fact, now that I think about it, when you mix my point about marketing with the religious double-meaning from the above paragraph, it’s rather insulting to Christians. It’s very L. Ron Hubbard when you look at it.
The scene is broken up by a sudden snowball fight. Snowflake ends up using her flying powers to make a whirlwind of snow around Zort and turn him into a snowman. This gives Chippey an idea. The next day, he hangs out on the tree, next to a snowman ornament that Taylor made when he was 7.
This is only a transitional segue as no reference is ever made to the snowman ever again. Taylor’s sisters give him more exposition on the rules of Elf on the Shelf, including how if a kid touches the elf, he’ll lose his magic. Do you hear that, kids at home? You know how it looks like it’s just a doll? Don’t you DARE touch it or it will turn out to be just a doll after all and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT! That’s terrible. That’s like telling your kid that they got a Nintendo Wii, but if they ever open the box and see that it’s just a pile of socks, it’s because of something they did.
The cartoon has another enjoyable moment, which is becoming increasingly sparse as the McTuttle family do a family portrait and the father hopes that they can get it done in only a couple takes. We get a few still images such as this…
…before settling on a solid family photo.
Taylor has another scene where he badmouths Christmas magic. This time he ends up poking his finger at Chippey, who lifelessly falls to the floor. His sisters run off crying and Taylor reacts like he just killed a man and the cops are on their way. He bolts and once everyone’s gone, a woozy Chippey tries to fly off. His magic has left him and he collapses in the snow. I have to admit, I half-expected his unconscious pose to have both arms outstretched to the side with his ankles overlapped, but they didn’t go in that direction… with the ankles, at least.
Snowflake, Zort and Wordsworth all happen to be flying through the neighborhood and Snowflake is able to tell that the dying elf in the snow is Chippey just from looking at him from the sky while it’s snowing. I mentioned that all these guys look the same, right? They carry his cross—I mean, they carry his body to the North Pole, where he’s put in the elf ER. Chippey feels defeated and isn’t the most responsive. Wordsworth shows that you can have a character arc with only 30-seconds of screentime by dramatically going on a poem about belief and hope, showing that he’s reached the point of being a competent poet. So competent that this happens to an unrelated elf in a wheelchair.
Oh, wow. Yeah, the religious undertones are definitely intentional.
Chippey still won’t hear any of it and his friends leave him to depart back to their families. He’s too down in the dumps to care that he’ll recover by dawn.
Taylor deals with the guilt of what he’s done and hears his sisters quietly distraught over their inability to find Chippey. They wonder if Christmas will even happen now that Taylor’s botched it for them. Funny thing to ask when there are already presents under the tree!
They start to sing about what Christmas means, which is the usual fare in a Christmas special. Family, sharing, being together, all that. It’s when they hit the main line of the song that the Christian aspect becomes increasingly obvious. “Christmas is a time for forgiveness. That is why we all believe in Christmas.” Huh. I never really saw a major connection between Christmas and forgiveness, but forgiveness is that one guy‘s bread and butter.
Moved by the song, Taylor tries to find Chippey. With no sign of him, he writes a letter to Santa. This letter somehow makes it to Santa within a couple hours as he reads it and visits Chippey.
“I let you down, Santa. I tried to make Taylor believe and it didn’t work! None of it… I couldn’t do it, Santa.”
Come on, now! You tried to make Taylor believe as hard as I try to put effort in lifting when someone asks me to help them move a couch.
Santa basically agrees, but treats it like it’s a good thing. You can’t make someone believe. They have to believe for themselves. He hands him the letter, which is an apology from Taylor. It’s signed by him with a family photo. Chippey’s response after taking all of this in is, “This is from Taylor? …Taylor McTuttle?” He signed his full name and you know damn well what he looks like! Why are you asking this?!
The photo explodes into magic dust and empowers him with the ability to fly. He ends up back on the shelf when Taylor isn’t looking and Taylor’s happy to see him back. It didn’t feel like Christmas without him, he explains. Except Christmas didn’t happen yet, as shown in a montage of the McTuttles continuing to get into the Christmas spirit. Chippey watches as the children play outside and then turns his head to look at a new photo of Taylor on Santa’s lap.
Santa’s still a hypocrite, I see.
When Santa makes his visit to deliver the gifts that had already been delivered like a week earlier (seriously, the montage from a minute ago showed the parents wrapping presents from themselves, so what exactly were those presents under the tree?) and Chippey says goodbye to a framed photo of the McTuttles. He flies up the chimney, greets his friends and an army of elves trail behind Santa into the night.
The happy sight of Santa flying off and wishing us a Merry Christmas is immediately interrupted by an announcer telling us in a gritty voice, “Don’t miss CSI: New York. Next.”
Really. They really scheduled this Christmas special for little kids right before CSI: New York where literally within a minute of the cartoon being over, we see a montage of high school kids stripping, snorting cocaine and having sex. Smooth move, CBS.
Elf on the Shelf Presents An Elf’s Life is hardly a future holiday classic. While the animation is quite good and is very expressive, not to mention the voice acting for Santa and Snowflake are strong enough, it doesn’t have much else going for it. It’s rushed beyond belief, partially due to the marketing time used up, leaving us a story that’s ultimately paper thin with a protagonist who doesn’t do much of anything outside of whine about how he hasn’t done much of anything. The music is ultimately forgettable to the point that even the brief cameos of the, “Elf on the Shelf is watching you!” theme piping up in the background is welcome. Some of the lessons would be okay if it wasn’t for the fact that the whole thing stinks of being an informercial. The lessons and flimsy plot points mainly exist to not just get people to buy their product, but to buy into the idea of their product. It’s borderline offensive.
In the end, An Elf’s Life is less Frosty the Snowman and is more Frosty Returns. Only it doesn’t have John Goodman and Brian Doyle Murray to help redeem it.