Toy/Book Review: The Elf on the Shelf (2005)

To be clear, I honestly thought I was done writing about Christmas-themed toys. I've reviewed quite a few over the years, but something about the experience wasn't as fulfilling as it once was. It's hard to put my finger on the precise issue--

Oh, wait. Now I remember: no one cared about any of those posts.

At any rate, I've looked at a variety of holiday action figures, dolls, building sets, playsets, a Batmobile, and... whatever the hell this was... but there was one thing that always eluded me. And that, of course, was The Elf on the Shelf.

Obviously, "elude" is a strong choice of words. I've seen countless of these for sale over the years but it's rare to see them marked down significantly. There were times early in the blog's existence I considered paying the full $30 for a chance to mock these little demons publicly. But before I got around to that, I started seeing them parodied and viciously criticized, and... I don't know. It kind felt like I'd be piling on.

I'm all for mocking a bad idea, but I'm not a fan of kicking anyone (or even anything) when they're down, and - frankly - my knee-jerk reactions were widely publicized elsewhere.

But in early February, I found a stack of these at a Barnes & Noble near the Canadian border for 75% off their original price, and I decided it was time to pick one up. Only I wasn't buying this just to mock it or tear it down: I wanted to take a serious look at it and see how it measured up. I wanted to give it a fair shot.

Never mind. This is as bad as everyone claims. Hell, it might be worse.

Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with the packaging. And, honestly, this is where The Elf on the Shelf kind of shines. I'm going to have PLENTY of negative things to say about literally every other aspect of this monstrosity in just a moment, but the box... the box is really nice.

There's obviously a ton of wasted space, so it's not exactly ecological, but setting that aside, it's an attractive package. The cover, held shut by a hidden magnet, flips open to reveal the elf sitting on a cardboard shelf opposite a hardcover book laying out the story, premise, and rules of the doll (more on this in a moment). It makes for an impressive display, and I suspect it's a big part of the reason these caught on as well as they did.

I'll also give them a pass on including three silica packets in this. Maybe one wasn't lethal enough?

This ends the non-nightmare portion of the review. Let's move on to the doll.

It... it sucks. I mean, obviously it sucks. You can see the pictures, you've almost certainly seen a few of these in person, and you have some idea that $30 dolls in 2019 aren't supposed to look like a craft project a 12-year-old could replicate after a trip to Michael's.

The head looks like something that came from a dollar store, and the rest is stuffed felt. To its credit, the lower part of its torso feels like it's stuffed with the same material you'd find in a bean bag, which does help it sit up (take notes, imitators). Also, the stitching makes it somewhat posable: you can either replicate its kneeling pose from the box or let its legs hang out with its hands resting together on its lap.

In hindsight, maybe this wasn't the best design choice for something whose sole premise revolves around hiding and watching kids. You're either going to want to cut its hands loose or stick with the kneeling pose.

I took a handful of pictures with the hands stitched together before I cut the thread. Official pictures show them both ways, so I guess the assumption is it's up to you. That said, it's odd they didn't think to use a clasp or something to let you switch between looks. Hell, even the knock-off I reviewed a few years ago thought to attach some velcro to the hands.

The head will turn, allowing you to line its gaze up just right so your child will see it staring lifelessly at them the moment they wake. I guess that counts as a feature.

But of course the doll is only half the content. You also get that book detailing the unholy rules binding the elf. It's written in rhyme and illustrated in the same style as the cover. I don't think the art's bad, but I wouldn't call it anything special, either.

The writing mostly feels lazy, like they didn't understand meter or why it matters. But all that's fairly trivial - my real issue is with its content. Here's the short version: everything you've heard is accurate, and it really is that bad.

The elf is supposed to "move" from place to place, and finding him (without touching him) is presented as a game. He can't talk to you, because Santa forbids it (I guess Santa is a cruel lord, and the elves are his slaves).

Oh, remember how I said you weren't supposed to touch the elf? If you break that rule, the magic's lost forever. In other words, if a four-year-old picks this up, IT DIES. At least that's how I'm interpreting the line, "My magic might go." It's a bit vague.

This plays into the overriding theme of the book: self-control. And... okay, that's obviously important for kids to learn, but maybe there's a way to teach that without potentially traumatizing a young child.

On the other hand, I suppose that at least offers children the ability to opt-out of this nonsense. If the elf catches you hurling a snowball at your younger sibling, all it takes is a touch to silence that little snitch for good. Hell, you could even use the threat to blackmail the elf into giving a favorable report.

The art in the book is very reminiscent of the '60s and '70s. Everything about the doll is clearly geared towards the nostalgia adults might have for the holidays. The dolls themselves are... I'll be generous and say inspired by... decorative holiday figures from the '60s. These are a throwback to the version of Christmas baby boomers remember, rather than the one their kids are likely to experience.

In the wild, a dewback will eat its weight in elves every 4 weeks

Overall, I wasn't impressed with either the quality of the doll or the story attached to it, despite having fairly low expectations going in. The degree to which the book is oblivious to the creepier aspects of the doll is a bit surprising - it really plays up the surveillance stuff, and the moralizing around self-control is a touch sickening.

I certainly wouldn't suggest subjecting a child to this tradition unless they demanded it, and even then I'd recommend amending the story to something less traumatic.

The Shelf on the Elf