Over a fifth-anniversary dinner with my girlfriend recently, conversation turned to a mystery that has driven us both mad for almost the entire duration of our relationship. It is an image of a cartoon character, who appears on a clunky TV set in the background of an old family photo. The character is an elf-like man wearing a red shirt and white overalls. He has pointy ears and a gray beard. His eyes are closed, and he appears to be in the middle of talking, or perhaps sneezing. Given his red shirt, he could be one of Santa’s helper elves, or he could be an eccentric inventor or a wacky grandpa or a citizen of some larger elf universe. We were certain that the photo was taken in Ontario, Canada, in the early nineties. But its exact provenance was unknown, and solving the mystery had become a pet project for thousands of people online. Nobody had ever succeeded, though many had spent fruitless hours trying. Back in 2019, my girlfriend had asked whether I would post the photo on Twitter. I did, to no avail. Now, over dinner, she asked whether I would try again. Maybe this time, somebody would finally have the answer and we could move on with our lives.
There is something about the cartoon that is specific enough to make virtually everyone who sees it believe that they recognize it, but vague enough that nobody actually can. It definitely looks like it was animated in the late eighties or early nineties. It doesn’t look like Disney. It looks like it could be the work of Don Bluth, the one-time Disney animator who went on to direct “An American Tail” and “A Troll in Central Park,” except that those movies have been watched and rewatched by millions of people , and even their minor characters would surely be instantly recognizable to many. The photo’s Canadian origin suggests that the image could be a product of the Canuck animation studio Nelvana, which helped create such Saturday morning slot-fillers as “Rock & Rule” and “Star Wars: Droids.” I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of people suggesting that it might come from a mid-eighties series called “The Littles.” This seemed possible to me, but, just as I was about to binge every episode of “The Littles” at double speed, someone pointed out that the Littles had five fingers on each of their hands, whereas the character in question has only four. Please, stop suggesting “The Littles.”
When I first posted the image, I didn’t yet fully grasp the long and tangled history of what one fellow-traveler called the “cursed elf abyss.” I mistakenly thought that the source photo belonged to a friend of my girlfriend’s, because the friend had created a Facebook post trying to identify the character, amassing hundreds of replies over several years. Looking further into the photo’s history, I learned that it actually belonged to a friend of a friend of my girlfriend’s: Emily Charette, who works in marketing communications and lives in Ottawa, Ontario. The family photograph the cartoon appears in shows Charette as a young girl with her two older siblings. They are sitting on the floor, grinning at the camera, with the TV set visible behind them. Charette first posted a zoomed-in image of the elf man on her office Slack in May of 2016, and asked her co-workers whether they recognized it. One colleague shared the picture on Facebook, and it began circulating widely within his extended social circle. A couple of days later, the comic artist Sophie Campbell created perhaps the single most important piece of scholarship about the image: a long tumblr post that enumerated and ruled out every plausible contender: “Thumbelina,” “The Smurfs,” “The Magician’s Hat,” the “Teen Wolf” cartoon, and, of course, “The Littles.” (Campbell recalled, of all the old shows she sifted through, “It was my full-time job for a week.”) Many of these titles were floated and rejected again when I shared the image on Twitter in 2019, and yet again when a small crop of threads sprang up on Reddit. If you do a reverse-image search of the photo, you’ll mostly find social-media posts from these previous viral moments. The larger the hunt grew, the harder it became to find information on anything besides the hunt itself.
After much frustration and too many hours spent combing through awful episodes of “Stop the Smoggies,” my loved ones and I became resigned to never learning the truth about the elf man. But in the words of Mr. Bernstein in “Citizen Kane,” referring to that girl in the white dress, I’ll bet a month hadn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that elf. There is something about the little guy that burrows his way into the brain. From one vantage, there was comfort in the idea that some mysteries are so deep that even the Internet cannot solve them. But, from another, the elf seemed to violate the utopian promise that the Web contains the answer to literally any question. At the very least, I wanted to stop thinking about this.
So, on September 2nd, I reposted the photo. It immediately caught fire. For the first few hours, the usual suspects were reexamined: “Rock & Rule various,” Don Bluth films, those wretched Littles. Many seeing the post for the first time chimed in with entry-level suggestions. Have you considered Googling “Christmas specials from the nineties”? Could it be an elf? But dozens of others reported falling down YouTube rabbit holes, watching compilations of nineties commercials to see if our man might be a Keebler Elf, or tracking down obscure shows from companies like Atkinson Film-Arts. Someone manipulated the image to sharpen and brighten it, but the enhancement raised more questions than it answered; was the yellow block in the bottom-right corner of the image another cartoon character or merely some kind of light? Within twenty-four hours, blameitonjorge, a YouTuber with more than 1.5 million subscribers, posted a investigation video called “What is this 90s Canadian Cartoon?” Within a couple of days, the elf man was for sale on a T-shirt. A not insubstantial number of people told me that the image would ruin their Labor Day weekend. For our part, my girlfriend and I went to work watching 1981’s “The Trolls and the Christmas Express.” My tweet generated thousands of comments and millions of impressions. Still, nobody had identified the image.
Among other things, this exercise gave a sense of just how many mediocre kiddie entertainments have been churned out in recent decades. Go to your local Goodwill and you’ll find vast graveyards of VHS tapes and DVDs containing multiple generations’ worth of children’s programs that have been all but forgotten. And it was one of those obscurities that turned out to hold the answer we were looking for. When blameitonjorge reposted the image on Twitter, a follower with the handle @Rasuran1 replied simply, “I think I know what you’re looking for,” and posted four more images of the character. Then another Twitter user, @just_mayhair, correctly identified the title of the show: “The Soulmates: The Gift of Light,” a 1991 TV special that boasts the vocal talents of Canadian entertainment royalty Al Waxman and Sheila McCarthy. Of course it was Canadian.
On September 5th, someone by the name of Joshua Rastia uploaded the entire special to YouTube. It is about Comet the reindeer joining forces with two alien “soulmates” to defeat the forces of evil and bring Santa Claus back to the North Pole. The elf was one of Santa’s helpers. On the movie-centric social-media platform Letterboxd, where the program has racked up thirty-six views, a user named Calvin Kemph wrote that it was “a mediocre children’s film that in true holiday spirit, brought the world together for one moment of gratitude and reflection.” It has been said that we are a civilization in decline, that mankind’s greatest achievements are behind us, that as a nation we are irreparably polarized. Yet in September, 2022, millions of people saw an image and had the exact same reaction, and rallied together to achieve a common cause. As another, better-remembered Christmas icon once said, “God bless us, every one.” ♦