Elf Beat Sheet
Thanks to Cory Milles for this merriest of beat sheets. Cory is a teacher who routinely uses Blake’s ideas to challenge his students. His chapters on “The Power of Story” and “The Hero’s Journey” have been published in the books LOST Thought and LOST Thought University Edition. In his spare time, he writes YA novels and a blog, Attacking Ideas 101. He used the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet to plan and write his most recent YA novel, Paradox, and is in the planning stages of his next one using the Beat Sheet. With his favorite TV show Fringe ending in a few weeks, all he wants for Christmas this year is a Fringe Observer hat from Comic Con.
Will Ferrell’s movie Elf stands as one of my favorite Christmas films of all time. There’s something magical about Buddy’s journey into our world, and through his experiences, we are taken back to the magic of our childhood. This year, I watched it with my own children for the first time, and while they may not have understood everything in it, I loved watching them laugh at Buddy’s antics.
Buddy’s story follows a familiar path, one that is laid out by the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. Blake himself pointed out some of the steps of the journey in Save the Cat!, noting how the important All Is Lost moment is present even in this otherwise happy tale.
Buddy’s childlike innocence is what draws us to him. In fact, I don’t think there is any specific “Save the Cat” moment in this movie; all of who Buddy is, his purity of heart, is what makes us root for him. He’s different in more ways than one. Blake encouraged his readers to give characters something to make them stand out, and Buddy is the perfect example of this. His bright-green elf outfit is funny, cheerful, and memorable. In the drab world of the antithesis he enters in Act Two, Buddy stands out as the answer to the norm.
Elf is like any other Fool Triumphant story. Buddy, the fool, will affect those around him, representing the establishment of a world that does not embody the Christmas spirit as he does. His actions are in such contrast to everyone else’s that it is clear: he’s a fish out of water. By the end, Buddy will not be the only one to undergo change due to his experiences. Through transmutation, those he has encountered will learn to find their way.
Written by: David Berenbaum
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Genre: Fool Triumphant (Fool out of Water)
1. Opening Image: The movie opens in storybook fashion, with narrator Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) telling us a story. The story is of our film’s hero, Buddy, although the first time we meet Buddy, he is a baby at an orphanage. Papa Elf explains that Buddy’s father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), was in a relationship with a woman named Susan Wells, and the two had a child together, though Hobbs was unaware of this. Before Susan was able to tell him, she died. One Christmas Eve, the baby sneaks into Santa’s toy sack and is accidentally taken to the North Pole.
2. Set-Up: Within the first few minutes, we learn about how Buddy arrived at the North Pole, how he received his name (from “Little Buddy Diapers”), and part of his backstory. Buddy attends Elf School, reciting the Code of the Elves. Papa Elf tells about how Buddy grew up without realizing he was a human, and how he trained Buddy in the mechanics of maintaining Santa’s sleigh. He explains to Buddy that the sleigh used to be powered by Christmas spirit, but the Clausometer has been running on empty lately. To solve the problem, Santa’s sleigh is now powered by a jet engine, one that is in need of repair.
While Buddy radiates heart and warmth, something is amiss. He can’t make the same amount of toys as the other elves can, and try as he may, he just can’t seem to fit in. The elf foreman tries to help Buddy by giving him easier tasks, but deep down, Buddy feels like a “cotton-headed ninnymuggins.”
3. Theme Stated: Buddy is confronted with the fact that he is not able to keep up with the rest of the elves when it comes to toy-making. His count is 915 units behind schedule, and when he berates himself as having no talent, elf Ming
Ming tells him, “We all just have different talents, that’s all… you have lots of talent, special talents, in fact.” This is the thesis that will be debated in the story: what makes an individual unique, and how does someone find out where he or she truly belongs?
4. Catalyst: After becoming frustrated with his lack of toy-making ability, Buddy overhears some of the other elves discussing how clueless he is, stating that if he hasn’t figured out he’s a human yet, he never will.
5. Debate: Images swirl through Buddy’s mind as he reels from this revelation. He collapses due to the shock, and later runs home to Papa Elf, locking himself in the bathroom. The two of them talk about what Buddy just learned, and Buddy learns about his past and true parentage. Papa Elf shows Buddy a snow globe with the Empire State Building inside it, telling him where his father works.
Outside, Buddy talks to Leon the snowman about his doubts. “I don’t know what to do,” he confides. “I’ve never even left the North Pole.” Leon admonishes him to step out of his comfort zone, telling him, “This might be the golden opportunity to find out who you really are.”
Buddy then goes to talk to Santa. Deep down, he is debating whether or not he should meet his father in a world he might not blend in with or if he should stay at the North Pole, a place he already doesn’t completely fit in. Buddy is excited about the prospect of going to meet his true father, but Santa delivers a shocking blow: Walter Hobbs, a children’s book editor, is on the naughty list. “Some people, they just lose sight of what’s important in life,” Santa says. “That doesn’t mean they can’t find their way again. Maybe all they need is just a little Christmas spirit.” Buddy realizes that he has what his father needs and decides to set out to New York to meet and to rescue him. Papa Elf hands him the snow globe as a reminder of who he truly is and where he comes from.
6. Break Into Two: Buddy travels “through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel” to reach New York City. As soon as he arrives, we see how he adapts to this upside-down world, the complete antithesis of his winter wonderland.
Buddy goes to the Empire State Building to meet his father, but when he arrives, everyone thinks Buddy is a big joke. Even though Buddy mentions Walter’s ex-girlfriend Susan Wells, Walter sends him away, kicking him out of the building. Buddy goes to the place that is closest to his ordinary world as he can tell: Gimbel’s Department Store.
7. B Story: At Gimbel’s Buddy catches a glimpse of Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) as she decorates a Christmas tree. She sees him staring at her and confronts him. Her brash demeanor is unable to keep Buddy from sharing his wisdom: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.”
8. Fun & Games: While one could argue that the Fun and Games begin when Buddy first arrives in the Big Apple, they truly take off when he sets foot in the department store. Buddy does his best to fit in at Gimbel’s, and his innocence and naiveté is what audiences have come to see (“Have you seen these toilets? They’re ginormous!”). At the store, he has an encounter with the manager, who is not sure how to handle Buddy, whose “favorite thing to do” is to smile. When the manager announces that Santa will be arriving the next day, Buddy is ecstatic, screaming at the top of his lungs and adding, “I know him!” He works tirelessly throughout the night, turning the store into a mini North Pole.
Buddy wakes in the department store window display to see Walter Hobbs staring at him in disbelief before he walks away. Buddy, in his innocence, joins Jovie in the bathroom while singing a duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and soon, Santa arrives.
Only Buddy realizes that it isn’t the real Santa; he’s an imposter that “sits on a throne of lies.” Buddy gets into a fight with the faux Santa, and Walter Hobbs soon receives a call to bail his son out of jail. Hobbs takes Buddy to his doctor, who runs a paternity test, confirming that Buddy is his son.
9. Midpoint: Hobbs brings Buddy home to meet his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and his son Michael (Daniel Tay). Even though the family tries to seem welcoming, there is tension there. Buddy tries to fit in, even waiting for Michael to get out of school. After Buddy helps Michael in a snowball fight, Michael accepts him as a brother, and the two run through Gimbel’s together, jumping across beds and in the elevator. Buddy encounters Jovie, and Michael persuades him to ask her out to “go eat food.” Jovie accepts. On all levels, this seems like a victory for Buddy as he tries to find his place in the world and in his family. But as with all Midpoints, it is a false victory.
10. Bad Guys Close In: Just when Buddy thinks he’s found his place in this new world, the world starts to push back against him. Walter reluctantly takes Buddy to work with him, but Buddy is too much to handle. Walter tells him about the “shiny” mail room and sends Buddy down there to work. Buddy has trouble fitting in, and he mistakes a coworker’s whiskey for syrup, getting drunk. He causes issues in the mailroom, which in turn causes problems for Walter. The Bad Guys Close In on Walter, too: his boss wants him to come up with a new book by Christmas Eve, and Walter must choose between work and family. He brings in author Miles Finch to help save his business.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Buddy takes Jovie on a date to get a cup of the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee,” and the two hit it off well. Elated and in love, he bursts into the board room during the meeting and is surprised to see Finch, assuming that the author is an elf. Buddy’s insistence and innocence cause Finch to lose his temper and walk out on Hobbs.
11. All Is Lost: Hobbs is infuriated and screams at Buddy, yelling, “Get the hell out of my life!” Buddy, despondent, walks through New York, and while his father is meeting with the boss, Buddy is standing at a bridge, looking at the water below. It is a scene mirroring the famous one in It’s a Wonderful Life. As Blake wrote in Save the Cat!, the “Whiff of Death” is in the air in more ways than one as Buddy says he doesn’t belong there. Buddy himself is lost between two different worlds, and he can’t seem to find his place in either.
12. Dark Night of the Soul: Suddenly, Santa’s sleigh careens out of control and lands in Central Park. Buddy catches up with Santa and tries to help him fix the jet engine on the sleigh. Walter arrives with Michael, having chosen family over career when he realized that Buddy was leaving forever. While this might seem like a joyful reunion, it is anything but: a false defeat looms on the horizon as the Central Park rangers prepare to move in and arrest Santa. When Michael’s belief makes Santa’s sleigh begin to fly, Buddy knows what he must do: he gives Santa’s book to Michael. He must make the world believe.
13. Break Into Three: The city’s attention is now fixed on what is happening in Central Park.
-Gathering the Team: As Buddy tries to fix Santa’s sleigh before the Central Park Rangers can take them in, Michael runs to speak to the news anchor who is covering the event live. Walter attempts to distract the Rangers by dressing as Santa. Jovie and Emily see the news and rush to Central Park.
-Storming the Castle: Michael reads from Santa’s book live on the air, making enough people believe that the sleigh begins to fly. Buddy thinks he has the engine working when suddenly…
-High-Tower Surprise: … the engine is knocked off the sleigh. Now, it looks like Santa will be captured by the Central Park Rangers who are bearing down on him like the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings.
-“Dig, Deep Down”: Buddy does not have to dig, deep down, but rather it is the people whose lives he has touched. Jovie remembers Buddy’s words: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.” Overcoming her fears and insecurities, she sings in front of everyone. Emily joins her, and soon all of the others whom Buddy has affected do, too.
-Executing the New Plan: The sleigh gets a huge boost on the Clausometer, and it is just about to take off when Michael notices that Walter isn’t truly singing. Walter reluctantly joins in right as the sleigh rockets over his head and into the air.
15. Final Image: As Papa Elf narrates, the screen fills with images of a family sing-along followed by Buddy and Jovie visiting the North Pole. Buddy has found his place in both worlds, synthesis as his life has changed the lives of those around him, a typical feature of a Fool Triumphant story. Buddy’s influence is nowhere more evident than in the best-selling book that Walter’s new firm has published: Elf.
- Tom Reed
Really nice analysis, Cory. It makes me want to revisit the film, which I only saw once and remember with great fondness. I also remember first falling in love with Zooey Deschanel, like so many of us. The only thing I would add is a thought about the Fun & Games of the film. I’ve noticed that a lot of movies, and most of the really good ones have something like a ‘unified field theory of F&G,’ which usually springs right from the premise itself, though not always. This tends to be more easily spotted in comedies where F&G in general is easier to spot. But with ELF, to me, the F&G is the homage to Christmas movies and in particular, the Rankin-Bass production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” This homage is done across the board, from the story and the gags to the art direction and music. RTRNR was a powerful touchstone for that film and it was a huge source of what was being “played with” throughout. I know Blake’s definition of F&G is narrower and you nailed it with the playful events from the first Break to the Midpoint. But it’s been very helpful to me in my understanding of how stories and movies work to use this expanded definition of F&G to help get into the mindset of the storytellers. The F&G of Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is Frankenstein movies. The F&G of Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE, both the short and the feature, is the history of horror movies through a much wider swath of cinema, from German Expressionism to the House of Hammer, but centering on the legacy of Universal’s output in the 30’s and 40’s. Both are part and parcel of (with?) the premise. To use a more recent example, the F&G of ARGO is the good-natured lampooning of Hollywood. It nearly verges on comedy, and certainly works incredibly well as comic relief, being juxtaposed with the CIA rescue operation. They danced that delicate dance with total precision. That F&G is also part of the premise, and there is “fun” happening all the way through, not just from page 30 to 60. I think movies that have this kind of overt playfulness tend to be more entertaining, are often greater crowd-pleasers, and usually more popular and successful (when everything is done well, of course!). Blake’s coining of the term “Fun & Games” was truly brilliant; perhaps more brilliant than he knew. ELF is filled with it. Like I said, I think it’s worth going back and seeing just how much for myself. Good job.
- Melody Lopez
Wow Tom… you really opened my eyes to something about this movie Elf!
thank you for sharing.
Ruldolph was different like Buddy…and his difference is what helped save Christmas… THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE (and in Elf… its that believing in Santa (like believing in yourself) is what fills our spirits!
- Cory Milles
I agree with you, Tom. As I wrote this, it was a bit difficult to confine the F&G to the specific point listed in the breakdown. I think that Buddy’s whole experience is F&G from the first time we meet him. As he enters New York, it’s fun to watch him as a fish out of water. Later, even when the Bad Guys are Closing In, we find Buddy’s experiences to be fun. And you’re right about the setting being like that in Rudolph; the costumes, the elf workshop, and everything else at the North Pole was directly modeled to reflect that film. Thanks for your comments!
Great analysis! I love this movie! thanks!
- Melody Carrillo
“It’s sort of romantic, but it’s sort of weird, too.” – Favreau on the shower/duet scene between Deschanel and Farrell.
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Fantastic & detailed analysis, Cory! Thank you!