It’s that special time of year when it’s okay to sit inside and make that time for yourself, your family, or anyone near and dear to your heart. There’s something magical about the holiday season. It makes us all want to curl up on the couch and watch a feel-good movie.
One such feel-good classic is 2003’s Elf.
**If you’ve never seen Elf, in a nutcracker shell, it’s the story of a 6’3” man who grew up in the North Pole believing himself to be, well, an Elf – and everything that comes next when he finally realizes he isn’t one. **
The Narration in Elf Sets the Stage for a Different Kind of Christmas Story
It starts like any feel-good holiday classic – a wise older man narrating the intro sequence. A quick exposition scene to go along with it. The boilerplate stuff explains how we got there, and where the story is going. The kind of narration that paints a pretty picture of the world he’s inviting us into. You know, the iconic and seemingly regular narration we hear from all of the best Christmas classics.
Only, it takes a quick comedic turn.
Just as the audience is ready for another typical Christmas narration, Newhart redefines the tone and lets the audience know it’s not typical Christmas cannon fodder. Whether it’s when he narrates the all-too-obvious differences between his adoptive son and his peers or how he confesses Will Ferrell’s character might have been a little too sheltered. Newhart’s narration sets an honest comedic pace for the rest of the film.
Newhart’s Narration Is Used for World-building
At first glance, the narration we hear in Elf is no different from any Christmas classic.
It begins with the film itself.
Right from the very first moment of screen time, the audience gets pulled into the world of Elf. Using his narration as Poppa Elf, Newhart sets the stage for the rest of the story to unfold. He gives us the exposition and setting; provides a brief rundown of events and circumstances.
What’s unique about Newhart’s voiceover is that it’s intended to draw us into the story as much as build up the world around it. He introduces us to elf culture and explains the three career paths an elf can pursue. He lets us know why only an elf can do them and contrasts it against the on-screen visuals of Buddy attempting to keep up with his fellow elves. He breaks down the essential plot points and delivers intricate details about the story, walking a comedic line between the character and the all-knowing narrator.
In fewer than five minutes, the audience is virtual as in the know as the narrator is, and that’s no small feat for a comedy with as much backstory as Elf.
Newhart’s Voice-Over Puts a Comedic Twist on Holiday Narrations
As much as it’s a feel-good Christmas film, Elf is still a comedy – and Newhart’s narration is abundantly reflective of that. Where Holiday staples like How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and The Christmas Carol use their narrations to tell a definitive story and light the way through a foggy narrative, Elf uses its narration to put a comedic twist on the Holiday meta altogether.
And from the moment we hear Newhart’s voiceover, we already know it’s something different from what we’re used to seeing every year.
Instead of projecting an outward and all-knowing air of confidence in his role as a narrator, Newhart plays the part of a bumbling and concerned father. As much as his monologue informs the audience, it also sets a tone, pace, and theme. He takes the role of a “wise older narrator” and uses it to subvert the viewer’s expectations. Through mumbling and backtracking, comedic pauses and transitions, Newhart uses his narration to paint a picture of the North Pole through a lens of outlandish storytelling that blends together so well with the rest of the film.
All the while splitting his role both on and off-screen.
The Narrator Inhabits a Dual Role
Newhart doesn’t just inhabit the role of a narrator, he’s his own character with his own lived experience and stories to tell. And his style of narration supports that.
For a light-hearted Christmas comedy, the way that Elf splices its narrator into the on-screen fold is a surprisingly intricate use of the narrative device. Newhart narrates the film’s intro while simultaneously popping in and out of view on-screen. As he introduces us to the story and sets the tone for the rest of the movie, he comedically comes into focus, giving the audience a comedic glance at the stereotypical “I’m a narrator with a book” visual.
It serves the purpose of putting a face to the often disembodied and guiding voice of a narrator who orbits the story and instead installs them as a character in their own right.
And between Newhart’s comedic timing and goofy on-screen appearance – it just works.
Instead of being a detached voice from the movie, the narrator is a semi-integral character – he’s telling us the story of his son, the 6’3” middle-aged man who still thinks he’s an elf.
Like any great Holiday classic, Bob Newhart uses narration to introduce us to Buddy the Elf and explains the sequence of events that led to the beginning of the movie.
And while his narrations only occur at the beginning and end of Elf, they play a structural role in establishing the plot and adding shape to the story. The narrative we’re provided doesn’t just wrap up the story but ties it together with a neat little bow.
Newhart’s Narration is Short-Lived but Necessary
As short-lived as his narrations are, they play an integral part in the story. They introduce us to his adoptive son, Buddy the Elf, and draw the audience into his world.
Like most holiday classics, the narration isn’t exactly a focus, but a necessary complement to the style of the movie. It gives us the exposition we need to understand the pretense of the story and where it’s going or why. It’s a heavily used trope in holiday movies, but it’s a staple for a reason.
For example, without Newhart’s narration at the beginning of Elf, we wouldn’t know how or why Buddy accidentally crawled into Santa’s bag as a baby. Alternatively, the same backstory would have been written into the script as clunky dialogue.
Newhart uses his narration to endear us to Buddy and help us understand his childlike sense of wonder at the age of 30. He tells us the story from the perspective of a father – not an all-knowing entity without a personal attachment to the story.
Kim Handysides is an award-winning voice artist, and coach. Among her 20K+ narrations you have heard her on Discovery, Netflix, and the major networks, in iMax, the White House and the Smithsonian.