'Bad Santa' Vs. 'Elf': Time To Pick The Winner
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It’s Christmas Day! And that means some of you esteemed readers are assuredly spending time with family members you don’t like and the ones you do like are increasingly wearing thin. At a certain point today, everybody will have really had it with each other, and there's a pretty good chance you'll plop down and watch a Christmas movie.
If you’re like me, you’ll have to pretend you hate the march through such clay-mated classics as Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, The Year Without A Santa Claus (you’re welcome for the intro song that is now stuck in your head) and the like.
But if you've stumbled into the early-2000s holiday canon, there are two options we'd like to put in the ring today: Elf and Bad Santa. And only one gets to come out.
As you'll see, these are perfect opposites to go toe to toe. There are few more disparate Christmas films than these two, and they were released within a year of one another, Bad Santa in 2003 and Elf in 2004. There are many contexts in which to view these holiday staples. I'll try to hit what we at Cracked HQ consider the most pertinent of them. With that, let the showdown begin.
Bad Santa And Elf Performances By The Main Character
Both leads perfectly embody the character they portray in these two movies, even if the characters could not be more different.
Bad Santa follows a debilitatingly alcoholic mall Santa, who, with the help of his three-feet-tall accomplice, robs various malls around Christmas time. He encounters a troubled, pudgy, weird child and takes him under his booze-soaked wing (as best he knows, at least), soon letting the kid become a distraction as he succumbs deeper than ever into his drinking problem.
Elf, of course, follows the ever-joyous Buddy the Elf, played by Will Ferrell, who discovers he was adopted by elves, prompting him to find his naughty-listed father in New York City. He brings holiday cheer with him and the true meaning of Christmas, turning a curmudgeon James Caan into a Christmas believer! Yes, yes, quite the Hallmark story.
To say the roles of Willie and Buddy were perfectly cast is an understatement. Billy Bob Thornton completely embodies the essence of the lowest form of a piece-of-crap mall Santa; with his grizzled 5:00 shadow, greasy salt and pepper hair and constantly mopey face. He’s an angry, alcoholic conman bothered by seemingly everybody, so much so that he doesn’t even attempt to clean up his language around Thurman, the little boy who basically, and unknowingly, shelters and feeds him during his time in town.
Will Ferrell, on the flip side, exudes hopefulness in the face of everything (Well, except that one scene where it looks like he might jump off of a bridge). There is something about Will Ferrell’s face that beams childlike wonder. The control he has of his eyes when it comes to showing his excitement is a skill of Ferrell’s that few can match, like when Buddy goes over his first day with Walter.
Bad Santa And Elf Performances By The Main Character Verdict: Draw
The main character performances in Bad Santa and Elf are difficult to compare, as they exist on completely separate Christmas planes.
Bad Santa takes a very cynical perspective of Christmas, while Elf takes on one of the most fantastical and optimistic. Bad Santa is a rated-R flick with an alcoholic, ass-obsessed Billy Bob Thornton, while Elf is… well…
Let’s just say my family and I watch Elf multiple times per year and have done so as long as this writer can remember. Ahhh, Will Ferrell’s childlike wonder for Christmas in New York truly matches my own.
Each exudes the spirit of Christmas perfectly, one with childlike kindness, one with booze, drugs & sex.
Bad Santa And Elf Who Has The Better Slice Of Nostalgia?
There’s a clear winner in this one: Anyone born in the late 90s who watched Christmas movies had Elf on their screens every year since it was released; it has jokes for kids coupled with a whimsical Christmas charm that added to the—forgive my holiday language—the utter magic that was Christmas time as a kid.
The movie serves as a time capsule for Christmas during the early 2000s; building etch-a-sketches and Bob the Builder dolls, writing “Welcome Santa” in Lite Brites and the stacks of Sesame Street stuffed animals. It's as much an immediately-recognizable 2000's toy store as it is a movie.
Perhaps there is nostalgia associated with Bad Santa for those who saw it as teenagers, but a familial Christmas viewing of this raunchy, dark comedy doesn’t seem like the best idea.
Bad Santa And Elf Who Has The Better Slice Of Nostalgia? Verdict: Elf
This one is based entirely on unvarnished opinion, but it is tough to imagine Bad Santa evoking nostalgia of the same intensity as Elf. I can’t fathom watching Billy Bob Thornton tell a woman in a changing room she won’t walk right for a month as an eight year-old and have that be a cherished memory I later remembered with my dad.
Bad Santa And Elf Who Makes Better Use Of Malls
Both these movies spend a lot of time in malls. The first place Buddy visits in New York is Gimbels, where, dressed in his real elf garb, he's mistaken for a mall elf, while Willie and his little friend Marcus view the mall as a robbery target.
There are few things more darkly funny than a kid-meeting-Santa-trainwreck, and both movies take hard runs at it. Buddy rips the beard off the mall Santa he realizes isn’t the real Santa (It’s Artie Lange!). Artie Lange smashes Buddy’s winter wonderland to pieces in what I'll dare to call an iconic Christmas fight scene.
Bad Santa's Willie, an even-dialed-up-harder version of Artie Lange's mall Santa, is wasted a lot of the time, and I mean wasted. There are several Santa’s scenes where he curses at the kids, tells them their ideas are stupid and tells them to get the f*ck off of him. It’s great.
This one is still the king, though.
Both movies feature after-hour mall operations, for very different reasons. Buddy sneaks around after the lights go out so he can give Gimbels a facelift worthy of Santa’s arrival. While robbing the mall after everyone leaves on Christmas Eve, Willie and Marcus find themselves stuck in a shootout after Marcus prepares to kill Willie for being unreliable.
And both movies feature managers that play an outsized role through the movie, with the late great Bernie Mac as the mall manager, Gin, who wants a cut of Willie and Marcus’s take, and Faizon Love as the Gimbels manager. They play fairly different roles, as Love’s character is largely out of the loop of everything going on in the plot of the movie, while Gin offers his silence and complacency of the robbery for a 50% cut.
Bad Santa And Elf Who Makes Better Use Of Malls Verdict: Bad Santa
Gin is given a lot more to do as a manager in Bad Santa, going through an entire arc of turning from a skeptic manager to just being another one of the “bad guys” (Well, until he’s run over by Marcus’s wife, Lois). Love’s character is more of an aside to everything, another analog of reality to Buddy’s Christmas nonsense.
They both have their comedic moments as managers, but there’s more to Gin. For that reason and the numerous disastrous Santa meet-and-greets, Bad Santa gets the edge in the use of a mall.
Bad Santa And Elf Who Has A Better Embodiment Of The Christmas Spirit?
This category has a fairly obvious winner, but it’s closer than one might think. Elf takes the spirit of Christmas to treacly levels such as, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” or, “Get through? Christmas is the greatest day in the whole wide world!”
Buddy’s story is him experiencing an absence of the Christmas Spirit for the first time in his life through his father and the rough-and-tumble world of New York City. But by “singing loud for all to hear,” he saves Christmas! Applause from the whole family!
Bad Santa sneers at any sense of Christmas spirit and tells you to shove it up your moneymaker.
Willie operates as the antithesis of the Christmas Spirit. I mean, the guy literally dresses up as Santa so he can rob a mall on Christmas Eve. The boy who he takes under his wing—or does the boy take him under his wing?—is the closest thing to a holiday revelation. Even during the most tender moment of the movie, when Thurman asks for a present Willie can’t help but hurl profanities at him (He’s a “dipsh!t loser”) in his moment of vulnerability.
There is, though, something touching about Willie’s efforts to steal an elephant for Thurman. Amidst the score of his life, he still thinks of the boy. It's perhaps the first time Willie's thought of anyone but himself. Of course, this act of Christmas kindness - evading the police to bring Thurman his toy, is met with a lead shower at Thurman’s front door.
Bad Santa And Elf Who Has A Better Embodiment Of The Christmas Spirit? Verdict: Elf
In the end, Elf is a movie loaded with Christmas spirit, and Bad Santa is built to do the opposite. I’m gonna go gargle with some mouthwash after saying “Christmas spirit” that many times.
Bad Santa And Elf Final Ruling: Elf
Christmas movies are meant to be easily digestible, feel-good stories, and in the end, Bad Santa just works to subvert those holiday expectations. While Bad Santa is rife with laughable moments, Elf has more than its share of hilarious scenes, with the added bonus of Santa not getting shot several times in the back at the very end. There are situations for Bad Santa, like if you just need a break from all the Christmas BS, but it's a niche movie, and ultimately there aren’t many times when throwing on Elf won't float your boat.
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