Last post I discussed the external journey of Buddy the elf in Elf (written by David Berenbaum). Today I want to discuss Buddy’s internal journey, often referred to as the character arc. It is a little difficult to identify Buddy’s arc in Elf because his personality at the end of the movie is much the same as it was in the beginning. In fact, it took me a little thought to identify the internal journey.
I’ve made the point in the past that good stories should change the character internally – if not, they aren’t really very significant in the character’s life, and if that’s the case why are watching the movie? So is Elf not a good movie? Or does it work in some other non-traditional way?
The internal journey grows out of the character’s need, and last post I said Buddy’s need is to believe in himself. That’s set up in the beginning when he can’t meet the work demands of the other elves and judges himself “a cotton-headed ninny-muggins.” And it pays off in the end when Buddy is the only one who can fix Santa’s sleigh. But perhaps “believe in himself” was not the best way to phrase what Buddy needs. More useful is to say that Buddy needs to accept himself. In essence, Buddy needs to not change.
This is a bit unusual, but if you think about it, it’s really just an example of one of the three forms I’ve identified of the interplay between want and need: Buddy’s need is to realize he has the wrong want. He wants to fit in. He needs to accept that it’s okay that he’s different.
So though it may not be immediately obvious, Buddy is changed by the story. He goes from wanting to be like everyone else to accepting that he can fit in by being who he is. And that is, in fact, dramatized in the story.
The not-fitting-in part is obvious during the status quo section – Buddy is too big for the elf world, he can’t work as fast as the real elves, etc. In the first half of Act Two, Buddy finds he doesn’t fit in well in New York. In the second half he has trouble fitting in with his family. He even tries to change to make Walter happy – donning a suit, for example. All without success, leading to Walter kicking him out at the Act Two Turning Point.
In the aftermath of the Act Two Turning Point, Buddy says, “I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.” But then at the Epiphany Santa tells Buddy he’s the only one who can save Christmas (by fixing the sleigh) and Walter finally tells Buddy he loves him. Buddy realizes he is valuable just as he is. And then in the denouement we see Buddy happily married to Jovie and with a baby, interacting warmly both with his adoptive father at the North Pole and his biological family in New York.
So Buddy does have an internal journey. But I would also say the movie gets more of its emotional depth out of how Buddy changes others with his unique spirit.
This is particularly true of Walter. He goes from a workaholic who ignores his family and doesn’t care about anyone to a loving father who sacrifices his job to keep his family together. Walter has the biggest arc of the movie.
Jovie, Buddy’s love interest, also has an arc. At the beginning of the film she tells Buddy she’s just trying to get through the holiday season. Later we learn she’s showering at the store because her water has been shut off. We also see her spending Christmas Eve by herself watching TV.
We don’t actually know that much about Jovie, but we can infer from these clues that she is beaten down and having a rough time in life. And we see how Buddy’s unfettered joy and wonder cheers her up. At the end of the movie, she’s the one who takes it upon herself to revive the Christmas spirit in the crowd of New Yorkers – something we couldn’t imagine her doing when we first meet her.
This story matters to Buddy because he starts out unhappy and ends happy. But perhaps in this case the real reason the story is worth our time is not so much how the main character changes but how he changes the other characters.
In the next post in this analysis I’ll dig a little deeper into how the internal states of the characters and their arcs are dramatized, one of the biggest challenges for a writer of film.