Santa Claus runs a pretty tight ship up at the North Pole, so it’s reasonably safe to assume most of his elves belong on the nice list. But as Christmas movies over the years have shown us, sometimes the holidays bring out some awfully naughty behavior, too. Here’s how 13 of Santa’s cinematic elves stack up.
Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty plays a down-and-out ex-cop in this double-Z-grade Christmas horror flick about a demonic elf whose sudden return to Earth revives the late Adolf Hitler’s secret scheme to create a race of human-elf hybrids. There are neo-Nazis, a teen who can’t stand Christmas (normal) who doesn’t realize her Aryan bloodline means the elf is going to try and breed with her throughout the movie (not normal), and also the distinct sense that every dollar of Elves’ tiny budget is used onscreen, and even then things don’t look great. Still: Nazi elf is most definitely the naughtiest of them all.
It’s a tie between these two gangs of truly nightmarish critters who pal around with creatures that represent the very darkest side of Santa Claus. Pick your poison: Krampus’ ghoulish elves, whose idea of a good time is tossing people into hell, or the equally horrifying Rare Exports brigade, who kidnap little kids and commit actual murder.
Who dares step to Kurt Russell’s Hot Santa (and the even more formidable Mrs. Claus, played by Goldie Hawn)? Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), that’s who. The antagonist of this recent Netflix release—an elf who is such an asshole he’s been cursed by being transformed into a human—is determined to sabotage Christmas at any cost, with a scheme that involves stealing the enchanted tree-topper star in Santa’s village and dosing all the other elves to make them naughty. He’s a nasty piece of work, but he’s not really dangerous, despite his best efforts—he’s basically the Christmas-movie equivalent of coal in a stocking.
Voiced by an uncredited Jon Favreau (producer of this Netflix special by the Chiodo Brothers, who contributed the stop-motion scenes to Favreau’s 2003 film, Elf), Obie is the North Pole’s top inventor who nearly cracks under the pressure of making sure Santa’s flashy new sleigh is ready for flight. It eventually takes the help of alien technology to get the sleigh up and running—and the experience helps Obie, whose workaholic tendencies mean he inadvertently neglects his family, learn where his real priorities lie.
In this Rankin-Bass musical classic, Mrs. Claus tasks two of Santa’s elves with infiltrating human society to see if there’s any Christmas spirit left in the world, a problem that’s gotten worse now that Santa has decided he needs a year off. The bumbling dudes are neither quick on the draw nor especially stealthy (and the sock-based disguise they whip up for Vixen the reindeer gets her sent to the dog pound), but the “funny little characters” at least have the sense to call Mrs. Claus, who ends up being the North Pole’s real MVP, when they realize they’re in way over their stocking-cap-clad heads.
Dave Foley voices Wayne, call sign “Little Drummer Boy,” in this animated Disney short about an elite team of elves who handle their festive duties with high-tech, super-spy-fi precision. After Wayne’s longtime partner gets the promotion he’s been counting on, he’s too bummed out to properly train the rookie he’s soon stuck with—resulting in a near-disaster for Santa that’s only averted with a scramble of hard work and an overdue reminder that Christmas is about joy, kindness, and giving...not the career paths of ambitious elves.
In this comedy charting the redemption of Santa’s ne’er-do-well brother (Vince Vaughn), John Michael Higgins plays the North Pole’s pocket-sized head elf. Willie’s an upbeat fellow who steps up to help the black sheep of the Claus family despite Fred’s over-it attitude, culminating in a frantic bit of Christmas Eve gift-delivering teamwork; in return, Fred helps Willie woo his glamorous elf dream girl, played by Elizabeth Banks. Word to the wise, though: while most of Fred Claus is harmless holiday fun (Paul Giamatti plays Santa; Rachel Weisz plays Fred’s girlfriend), the Kevin Spacey factor will forever keep it from earning classic status.
Salty, sassy, and equally stylish in both folkloric North Pole garb and Arizona mall couture, Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine) accompanies Noelle (Anna Kendrick) when her older brother, the reluctant new Santa (Bill Heder) goes AWOL right before Christmas. With her pointy ears carefully covered, Polly’s there to nudge Noelle into realizing her true destiny, sexist traditions be damned...as well as stage a jailbreak with the help of a full team of flying reindeer.
He’s an elf who (gasp!) doesn’t like making toys; he’d much rather be a dentist, a dream that’s nearly as impossible as freak-nosed reindeer Rudolph’s goal of joining Santa’s sleigh team. With cries of “You’ll never fit in!” ringing in their ears, the two meet in a lonely snowbank and decide to become misfit pals. In their ensuing adventure—which includes a perilous encounter with the fierce Abominable Snow Monster—Hermey’s deft teeth-yanking skills are precisely what’s needed to save the day, an act of heroism even the abusive Head Elf can’t deny.
North Pole elf Bernard (David Krumholtz) must break the news to regular-dad-dude Scott (Tim Allen) that the act of donning Santa’s jolly red suit means he’s now signed himself up for the job. Though he has a jaunty hat and glittery face, Bernard also has the distinct air of someone who’s had to wearily explain “you put on the suit, you’re the big guy” to aghast middle-aged men more than once in his long elf-life. But you can tell he secretly enjoys the hell out of the gig; when Christmas rolls around again, Bernard takes charge of the new Santa’s training, with help from Scott’s Santa-obsessed son—and he also materializes in Scott’s ex-wife’s house to casually eat a messy sandwich while giving her skeptical new husband (Judge Reinhold) the wake-up call of his life.
Until Buddy the Elf (see below) came along nearly 20 years later, chipper Patch (Dudley Moore) had maybe the most compelling character arc of any of Santa’s big-screen helpers. When we first meet him, the industrious worker is obsessed with coming up with ways to revolutionize toy production in Santa’s workshop; the movie later takes him to New York City, where he mistakenly allies himself with an oily, opportunistic, cigar-puffing toy exec played by John Lithgow, who most definitely is lacking in what Patch likes to call “elf-control.” Patch, who builds himself a pretty rad flying car along the way, eventually learns some hard lessons about why, for instance, old-fashioned elf craftsmanship is important—and why he doesn’t need to plot a second Christmas in March to earn Santa’s approval.
Of course, Buddy (Will Ferrell) isn’t a real elf; he’s a human who accidentally crawled into Santa’s sack as an infant and ended up being raised (by Bob Newhart’s Papa Elf) at the North Pole. But he tops the list anyway because—with his goofy innocence, intense love of sugar, snowball-tossing skills, serious commitment to holiday flair, and genuine desire to make everyone around him happy—he just might be the ultimate embodiment of Christmas spirit.
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