It’s not uncommon for little people to play elves in Christmas movies, but Elf bucks tradition a bit by casting people of average stature as the elves (through the cinematic technique of forced perspective), and a single little person (Peter Dinklage) as a highly paid children’s book author with an attitude.
Disability themes are hinted at; throughout the movie, especially during the beginning scenes at the North Pole, Buddy the Elf notices he’s different from the other elves. He can’t make toys as fast as they can, and though his elf supervisor tries to cheer him up by pointing out all the things Buddy excels at–like changing the lightbulbs every six months–behind his back they gripe that he’s slowing them down. Buddy overhears one such conversation, and is sent to the equivalent of a sheltered workshop for “special elves” (here the word “special” is used as a pejorative) where he performs repetitive busywork. A maniacal Jack-in-the-Box terrifies Buddy, and Santa must intervene.
Santa tells Buddy that he’s really been human all along, and must go to New York in search of his biological father. Buddy catches the next ice floe out of there, but after a socially awkward reunion with Walter Hobbs, his reluctant father believes Buddy is mentally ill.
Buddy persists in trying to form a relationship with his father, and (after an unusually quick paternity test) Walter is convinced of his duty to Buddy. He takes him home to a very understanding wife and son for nurturing, but after realizing he cannot leave Buddy alone in an unfamiliar world, takes him to work in the hopes he’ll sit quietly in the corner.
Buddy barges in on a meeting with the aforementioned children’s book author Miles Finch and mistakes him for one of his elf compatriots. Miles takes offense, lists his accomplishments (houses in various cities, plasma TVs, more “action” than Buddy’s ever seen), and challenges Buddy to “Call me elf, one more time!” Unaware of the human world’s sad history of labelling assertive disabled people as “angry”, Buddy whispers that he must be an “angry elf”.
Miles charges down the length of the conference table and opens up a travel-size can of whoopass. Someone’s been taking his adaptive martial arts lessons. Watch the full “Angry Elf” scene (unfortunately not embeddable). The scene is played for laughs, but such a beatdown is quite possible; little people do have normal or almost normal strength in their arms and legs. Combined with a low center of gravity, judo training, and the element of surprise, and it’s small wonder that Miles prevails.
Interestingly, the Elf Original Motion Picture Score lists the incidental music track for that scene as “Attack of the Little People”. The words “dwarf” and “midget”, currently considered pejorative, aren’t uttered in Elf. The producers show a sensitivity to disability issues, and even wring some humor out of them.