‘Elf’ is a 2003 Christmas movie with valuable life lessons. Superficially, the movie purports to show the “Christmas Spirit” as placing selfless spiritual values—like concern for others—over selfish material concerns like business and money-making. But the lesson drawn from the actions of the characters and the movie’s conclusion implies a different, opposite moral message.
Elf is the story of a human (Will Ferrell) adopted by Papa Elf (played by Bob Newhart), one of Santa’s elves. Upon growing up (physically, but still emotionally child-like), Buddy leaves the North Pole in search of his father, who doesn’t know his son exists. Buddy finds his father, employed as an executive for a publishing company run by a tyrannical, over-demanding boss who allegedly lacks “Christmas Spirit.”
Walter (James Caan), Buddy’s father, reluctantly takes Buddy into his home with his wife and their approximately 10-year old son Michael (Daniel Tay). But Buddy comes to feel unwanted by his father, and runs away. Upon finding Buddy’s runaway note, Michael rushes to his father, who is at work trying to complete a book project on Christmas Eve at the commandment of his boss. Michael walks into the meeting and tells his father that Buddy had run away, and asks for his help in finding his half-brother.
Walter now faces a decision; go after Buddy immediately or finish the project as demanded by his boss. Initially, Walter chooses to put off looking for his runaway son, to the chagrin and anger of Michael, and instead stay and satisfy his boss, who threatens to fire him if he doesn’t complete the project by the end of that day, Christmas Eve.
At that point Michael, himself feeling somewhat neglected by his father’s generally excessive focus on his work, rebels, accusing his father of “always thinking only of yourself.” (Earlier in the movie, Michael had accused his father of “caring only about money.”)
At this point, important questions are begged. Is the pursuit of money and success an end in itself, or a means to an end? Was Walter really thinking “only of himself”—acting in his rational self-interest—by hierarchizing his job over his family? Or were his priorities screwed up, leading him down a personally self-destructive path?
Michael’s rebellion is like a slap in the face to Walter. He must decide what values are most important in his life; his job or his sons. But Walter’s dilemma does not involve the choice implied in this scene; to choose between his family or the pursuit of money. The actual choice is; his family or his stressful job working for a jerk boss. This is the choice Walter faces. He is on the spot between his particular job and his sons, and must now decide what his most important values are—the most selfish choice he’s ever had to make.
Walter chooses his family, thus losing his job. It’s the “right” choice, because he has put concern for others above selfishness. But, did he? Is it a choice between selflessness and selfishness? The choice Walter ultimately makes point to some important life lessons, albeit perhaps not the lessons intended by the movie’s producers. The obvious message one is supposed to draw from the movie is that when faced with the choice between selfless concern for others or the selfish pursuit of money—between the spiritual and the material—we must choose the former, which allegedly embodies the “Christmas Spirit.”
By forsaking his job for his family, Walter supposedly made the correct, selfless choice. But was it really selfless? Are spiritual values the embodiment of selflessness, and the material the embodiment of selfishness? This narrative applied to the moral dilemma Walter faces is rooted in a false premise; an alleged dichotomy between your mind and your body; between the spiritual and the material. Interestingly, whatever the producers’ intentions, the movie itself refutes this false narrative and premise. There is no such choice or dichotomy. The moral choice is between selflessness and selfishness. But not in the way seemingly meant in the movie, or as almost certainly taken by most viewers.
The most important lessons (or moral messages) that I drew from this heart-warming movie are not explicitly drawn out and demonstrated to the viewer. But the lessons are there, nonetheless. The movie doesn’t explicitly answer the questions posed above. But the implicit answers embedded in Walter’s choices say something important about money and values. Money is a means to serving one’s happiness and spiritual well-being, not an end in itself. One must not pursue money, whatever the cost. Indeed, to pursue money at all costs is not only not selfish. It is self-destructive. And one does not have to. The pursuit money and success and to pursue love and the nurture of family are both important, selfish values. Human beings are a unified whole of mind and body. There is no conflict there. To achieve a flourishing life, one must integrate one’s values—all of them, spiritual and material—into a proper hierarchy, and act accordingly.
Yes, Walter gives up his crappy job for his family. Keeping it for so long at the expense of his family life was very unselfish; meaning, not in his rational self-interest, as he comes to learn. But he doesn’t choose his family at the expense of the pursuit of money. In the end, Walter achieves both material, money-making business success—he starts his own publishing company with a successful book launch—and a good family life, sacrificing neither to the other. His ultimate choices and motives are thoroughly, and properly, selfish. Therein lies the lesson of Elf: Both spiritual and material values are crucial to a flourishing life. On the issue of the spiritual vs. the material, it’s not either-or. But you must integrate and hierarchize your values rationally, and choose wisely—i.e., long term—because you can have neither spiritual nor material flourishing without the other.