Reading time: 31 MIN

10 Films to Watch if You Like: Elf

Back in cinemas to mark its 20th anniversary, Elf has become a modern classic when it comes to Christmas movies. To mark the occasion and celebrate the festive season, Cinema Paradiso goes behind the scenes while also seeking out some other Yuletide gems for the whole family to enjoy this December.

How can it possibly be Christmas again? It only seems like five minutes ago that Cinema Paradiso was bringing you What to Watch Next If You Liked The Bishop's Wife. This had shared the festive spotlight with The 12 Scrooges of Christmas, which had followed on from What to Watch Next If You Liked Scrooge. Two more entries in this series, on Toy Story and It's a Wonderful Life, bring us back to Top 10 Films Set in Department Stores, 12 Films of Christmas Past, 12 Films of Christmas Present, and New Year Films.

A still from Elf (2003)
A still from Elf (2003)

Have a browse and see if anything takes your festive fancy. You won't find a choice of seasonal films anywhere to rival that offered by Cinema Paradiso. So, get clicking. But if you're still searching for inspiration, why not revisit Jon Favreau's Elf (2003), which turns 20 this year and has been dubbed by some critics, 'the last Christmas classic'?

Buddy's Story

Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) recalls how, one Christmas Eve, a baby boy clambered out of his orphanage cot and crawled across the floor to hide in a sack of toys while Santa (Ed Asner) was eating the cookies that had been left for him. It wasn't until he was back at the North Pole that Santa noticed the stowaway and he asked Papa Elf to raise the child as his own.

Years pass and Buddy (Will Ferrell) grows into a six-foot human who towers over the elves working cheerfully in Santa's workshop. Buddy loves everything about his life, even though everything is too small for him. Unfortunately, however, he's not a good toymaker and he finds testing Jack-in-the-boxes to be stressful. So, Papa Elf breaks the news that he is a human, whose mother, Susan Wells, had given him up for adoption when he was born. His father is still alive in New York City, however, and, armed with a snow globe of the city skyline, Buddy sets out to see if he can fill his father (who knows nothing of his existence) with enough Christmas spirit to get him off the Naughty List.

Bidding farewell to his friends, Leon the Snowman (Leon Redbone), a polar bear cub (Ray Harryhausen), a baby walrus, an Arctic puffin, and Mr Narwhal (all Jon Favreau), Buddy crosses the seven levels of the Candy Cane Forest and passes through the Sea of Swirly-Twirly Gum Drops before emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel into downtown Manhattan. Recognising the Empire State Building from his snow globe, Buddy calls on Walter Hobbs (James Caan) in his office at the children's publisher, Greenway Press.

As Buddy is dressed in a green elf suit and yellow tights, Deb the secretary (Amy Sedaris) thinks he's a Christmas-gram messenger and sends him through. Despite being taken aback by the mention of Buddy's mother's name, Walter thinks he's being pranked and has him removed after he completes his improvised song. Taking the sarcastic advice of the security guards who eject him from the building, Buddy heads to the Gimbels department store, where he is mistaken for a grotto elf by toy section manager, Wanda (Faizon Love).

On hearing that Santa will be in the store the next day, Buddy gets over-excited and attracts the attention of Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a disenchanted shop assistant who is dressed in an elf costume. Eager to give Santa a proper welcome, Buddy hides in the store overnight and transforms the toy department into a wonderland festooned with lights and cut-out decorations.

As he finishes his work, Buddy overhears someone singing in the women's locker room and joins in with a showering Jovie on the last chorus of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside'. She chases him away, but can't stay cross, as he is so hepped up by Santa's imminent arrival. Much to Buddy's dismay, however, he realises that the man in the red suit and white beard (Artie Lange) is not the Santa he knows and gets into a fight after accusing the imposter of sitting 'on a throne of lies'.

Reluctantly bailing Buddy out of a police cell, Walter forces him to take a DNA test to prove he really is his son. Faced with the facts, he takes Buddy home to meet his wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and tweenage son, Michael (Daniel Tay). He receives a mixed reception, with the kindly Emily pretending to enjoy the breakfast of spaghetti and maple syrup that he prepares for her. Michael is more standoffish, until Buddy proves a whizz at snowballing after they are ambushed by bullies in the park on the way home from school.

Having wandered the city and discovered the delights of revolving doors and the perils of yellow cabs, Buddy takes Michael to Gimbells to introduce him to Jovie. Realising that his half-brother has a crush on her, Michael tells Buddy to invite Jovie on a date and she accepts. He takes her to a café advertising the world's best coffee and kisses her while they ice skate.

Unsure what to do with Buddy after the doctor (Jon Favreau) suggests he's acting immaturely because he's been missing a father figure, Walter decides to take him to work. Under pressure from boss Fulton Greenway (Michael Lerner) to come up with a bestseller to rescue the company, Walter sends Buddy to the mailroom so he can concentrate. Here, he mistakes a co-worker's booze for syrup and gets drunk when he pours a half bottle into his coffee. Bursting in on a meeting with important author, Miles Finch (Peter Dinklage), Buddy disgraces himself when he mistakes Finch (who has achondroplasia) for an angry elf and they brawl on the boardroom table. When his potential saviour storms off, Walter tells Buddy to get out of his life and he disappears after leaving an apology on an Etch A Sketch.

Michael is distraught at reading that Buddy feels he doesn't belong and gives his father an ultimatum, to save a job he hates or help him find Buddy. While they scour the Christmas Eve streets, Buddy wanders into Central Park after seeing Santa's sleigh make a landing after losing power. In the past, the sleigh had been fuelled by Christmas spirit, but Papa Elf had been forced to fit an engine to get it airborne. However, it has fallen off and Buddy (who knows how to fix the problem) goes to retrieve it.

Meanwhile, a television crew has come to report on strange sightings in the park and Jovie and Emily see reporter Charlotte Denon (Claire Lautier) interviewing eyewitnesses. Walter and Michael see the crowd and sneak into the park, where Buddy introduces them to Santa. As he needs a distraction to keep the mounted park rangers at bay while Buddy completes the repair, Santa swaps clothes with Walter, while Michael takes Santa's List and reads out names and gifts on camera to boost Christmas spirit levels. In order to assist, Jovie and Emily start singing 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' and the bystanders join in.

The plan works and Santa takes off to complete his deliveries with Buddy at his side. But the story doesn't end there, as Papa Elf reveals that Walter set up his own company and publishes Buddy's book about his adventure. Moreover, he and Papa Elf became grandfathers and Buddy and Jovie bring baby Susie to the North Pole in time for Christmas.

Ten Years Later...

Screenwriter David Berenbaum got the idea for Elf after moving from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Feeling out of place and missing the snow, he decided to write a festive comedy about an outsider who doesn't quite fit in. 'It hits hardest at Christmastime when it's 105 degrees out here,' Berenbaum told one interviewer. 'It was very comforting to write a Christmas movie when you miss the snow, and there's a heatwave outside.'

A still from A Christmas Carol (2009)
A still from A Christmas Carol (2009)

Hitting on the idea of a human who is raised by elves at the North Pole, Berenbaum completed his script in 1993 and Chris Farley and Jim Carrey were linked with the role of Buddy. But, even though the spec scenario was optioned, it was shelved after the producers failed to secure funding. Sadly, Chris Farley would die in 1997 at the age of 33, while Jim Carrey would become one of Hollywood's highest earners, who would make his own Yuletide magic in Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and Robert Zemeckis's CGI Charles Dickens adaptation, A Christmas Carol (2009).

The Elf screenplay. however, reached Will Ferrell, who was looking for his first major feature outing after having spent several seasons on Saturday Night Live (see the Best of Will Ferrell selection). As Cinema Paradiso users will recall from Getting to Know Will Ferrell, he had also taken his first tentative steps on the big screen with the likes of Andrew Fleming's Dick (1999) and Matt Nathan's Boat Trip (2002).

In fact, while he was starting out with the improvisation troupe, The Groundlings, Ferrell had spent five weeks as Santa at an outdoor mall in Pasadena, with Chris Kattan - his co-star in John Fortenberry's A Night at the Roxbury (1998) - being his elf assistant. He was keen to do the picture, therefore, and Terry Zwigoff was approached to direct. However, he was more interested in joining Billy Bob Thornton on Bad Santa (2003). Enter Jon Favreau, who had been shown the script by Judd Apatow's manager while he was working on a TV pilot. Having already directed Swingers (1996) and Made (2001), Favreau was eager to helm another feature. But he wasn't overly keen on Berenbaum's screenplay.

'I took a look at the script,' Favreau later told Rolling Stone magazine, 'and I wasn't particularly interested. It was a much darker version of the film. I liked the notion of being involved with Will in his first solo movie after SNL, but it wasn't quite there.' With Favreau being ready to walk away, the producers asked him to take another look, with the prospect of rewriting the material so it better suited him. 'I remember reading it,' he continued, 'and it clicked: if I made the world that he was from as though he grew up as an elf in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, one of those Rankin/Bass Christmas specials I grew up with, then everything fell into place tonally.'

Favreau spent the next year working to tone the script down from PG-13 to PG, so that it would appeal to a family audience. Scot Armstrong and Chris Henchy also did uncredited rewrites, as did Ferrell and Adam McKay, who would go on to write Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (2006), Step Brothers (2008), and The Other Guys (2010) for his old SNL friend. As a consequence, Buddy became more of an innocent abroad in the same way that Tom Hanks's Josh Baskin had been in Penny Marshall's Big (1988).

This proved a major influence on the re-shaped screenplay, as Ferrell explained. 'We always talked about making a movie close to or reminiscent of a movie like Big,' he said, 'where it's funny and touching in a way that's real and not too sappy. That was exactly the specific movie we'd reference.' Another touchstone was The Santaland Diaries (1992), a story collection in which satirist David Sedaris recalled his time as a Christmas elf at the Macy's department store in New York. As Favreau knew his sister, Amy, from the Chicago-based Second City improv group, he cast her as Walter Hobbs's secretary, Deb. The key inspiration, however, was Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass's 1964 animation, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which has recently been digitally remastered and is available to rent on high-quality DVD and Blu-ray from Cinema Paradiso. This had also been a childhood favourite of David Berenbaum, who has lost his father at the age of eight.

Indeed, Santa's workshop was based on the one in the cartoon, while the elf costumes were modelled on the suit worn by Santa's helper, Hermey. As costume designer Laura Jean Shannon recalled: 'It was less a challenge dressing Will due to his size and more a challenge to make sure nothing seemed off-putting or in bad taste. After all, I had to dress a grown man in tights and a cutaway coat. Needless to say, we did have a fair amount of fittings to be sure we struck the right balance between absurd and adorable.'

A still from The Christmas Star (1986)
A still from The Christmas Star (1986)

The costume worn by Ed Asner as Santa was inspired by classic Coca-Cola Christmas advertisements from the 1950s. He had previously played a con man posing as Santa in Alan Shapiro's Disney teleplay, The Christmas Star (1986), although James Garner, Jeff Fahey, John Rhys-Davies, and Garry Marshall were all considered for the role. One source even claims that Steve Buscemi was in the reckoning. Asner was joined at the Pole by Peter Billingsly, who had not only worked with Favreau as a producer on the TV series, Dinner For Five (2001-05), but who had also made his own bit of festive history as Ralphie, the nine year-old boy who wants a Red Ryder air rifle in Bob Clark's A Christmas Story (1983). Curiously, Billingsley, Favreau, and Mary Steenburgen would reunite in Seth Gordon's Four Christmases (2008).

Garry Shandling turned down the role of Walter Hobbs that went to James Caan, while Mary Steenburgen was first choice for Emily, having been so winning as the mother who rediscovers the joys of the season in Philip Borsos's One Magic Christmas (1985). Faizon Love took on the part of the Gimbels manager after comedian Wanda Sykes dropped out and insisted on using the name tag that had been made for her. The suits at New Line Cinema wanted to cast Katie Holmes as Jovie before Zooey Deschanel, who was then best known for playing Patrick Fugit's sister in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (2000). 'I went in as a backup,' she recalls of her audition. 'The person they cast couldn't do it. A lot of the parts I got early in my career, I was filling in for someone else who had dropped out last minute.' She had dyed her hair for a project that hadn't worked out and the producers insisted that she remained blonde for Elf.

Two more blondes failed to make the cut, however. Twin boys with curly blonde hair had been chosen to play Baby Buddy in the orphanage sequence. But Favreau was forced to fire them because they started crying the minute the camera started rolling. They were replaced by dark-haired triplet girls, whose cute antics in the cot and crawling across the dormitory floor were shaped into an amusing performance by editor Dan Lebental.

Where There's a Will

A still from Jennifer's Body (2009) With Amanda Seyfried
A still from Jennifer's Body (2009) With Amanda Seyfried

Granted a budget of $30 million, Favreau started shooting on 9 December 2002. Fourteen days were spent in New York, while Vancouver hosted the project for several weeks. A good deal of time was spent nearby at the Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam, British Columbia, a converted mental health facility that had been used for The X-Files (1993-2002) and would later welcome David R. Ellis's Final Destination 2 (2003), Eric Bress and J. MacKye Gruber's The Butterfly Effect (2004), Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body (2009), Jen and Sylvia Soska's See No Evil 2 (2014), and Tim Miller's Deadpool (2016). Production designer Rusty Smith claimed, 'it is one of the creepiest places I've ever been in my life'. Indeed, Elf shared the space with Ronny Yu's Freddy vs Jason (2003) for a time. Now there's a double bill!

As mentioned above, there was a dark side to the original screenplay, with some of the elves being mean to Buddy because he's not a natural toymaker. As a result, he's banished to the testing area, where Favreau amused himself by giving Ferrell shocks with each Jack that popped out of the box by using a remote controller so that the actor could never know when the next lid would flip. The cackle used for the clowns, by the way, was recorded by Dal McKennon for a hyena in the Disney animated classic, Lady and the Tramp (1955).

In order to emphasise how much bigger Buddy is than his elf friends, Favreau filmed an ice hockey game, in which he knocks everyone over in his eagerness to win. But it was decided to drop the sequence as it slowed down the plot. Like the other North Pole scenes, it made use of an optical illusion to create the impression that Buddy is towering over everyone and everything around him. Reliant on two sets (one smaller than the other) and outsized props, the technique of 'forced perspective' had previously been employed in films as different as James Parrot's Laurel and Hardy short, Brats (1930) - which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Laurel and Hardy, Volume 21 - Robert Stevenson's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), Mel Brooks's The History of the World, Part I (1981), and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

As Favreau explained: 'One set is raised and closer and smaller, and one is bigger and further away. And if you were to line up those two sets and measure them, you can have one person on one set appear to be much larger than a person on the other set...And if you look closely, you can see the two sets meet because we didn't use CG to paint over that or blur it. I wanted it to have the same flaws that it would have had, to make the movie feel more timeless.' In shooting his scenes as Papa Elf, Bob Newhart had to stand several feet behind Will Ferrell. In order to get the effect of Buddy perching on Papa Elf's knee, Newhart had to sit behind Ferrell, who was positioned on a box over a child actor, whose legs poked through beneath him.

'As an actor,' Newhart revealed, 'it's tough because you don't have the eye contact. He's looking one way, I'm looking the other. It is difficult when you're not playing to the other actor's face and his reaction.' Now aged 94, he jokes about the reaction he gets when he meets Elficionados. 'When fans find out I'm taller than 3 feet and 2 inches, they feel cheated. They don't understand how I'm 5 foot 7. They're going, "That's not Papa Elf. He's too tall to be Papa Elf."'

A still from Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011)
A still from Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011)

Such was Favreau's determination to avoid digital imagery as much as possible that he also employed stop-motion animation for Leon the snowman and the creatures who wish Buddy well on his journey. Rankin and Bass had used this technique, so it seemed appropriate and Favreau even persuaded stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, whose career is celebrated in Gilles Penso's documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011), to voice the polar bear cub. Rhythm & Hues Studios were commissioned for some CGI work, however, for some falling snow, the snowball fight, and Santa's sleigh flying over New York.

Like Favreau, Ferrell was unhappy with the tone of early drafts of the screenplay. He wanted Buddy to be innocent and optimistic rather than gauche and downhearted. 'I knew it would be a family movie,' he told Entertainment Weekly in 2003, 'but I wanted to make sure it didn't take itself too seriously. We tried to focus on the way this guy would view New York City, because he has no preconceived notions. He's like a kid, how they say things like: "Why is that man so fat?" They just spit it out. He has those instincts, so we tried to come up with things like, if Buddy sees a sign that says "World's best cup of coffee," he takes it literally.'

Buddy is also proud of his North Polar roots and true to its Christmas code. Thus, when he sees someone impersonating Santa, he can't help but act on impulse. The tussle had to be filmed in one take, as the set decorators had spent weeks making the toy department look enchanting and it would be too expensive to re-shoot. Artie Lange, who sits upon the 'throne of lies' remembers Favreau's single instruction being 'Just go nuts!'

Initially, Macy's had agreed to let Favreau use its Santaland display and had even agreed to let Buddy join the annual street parade. But the store refused to allow its Father Christmas to be exposed as a fraud, as they make a big deal about him being real. As a result, the scene was staged in the Riverview cafeteria and Favreau opted to revive the Gimbel brand that had long been synonymous with Christmas (despite going out of business in 1987 after 100 proud years) because it had been the scene of George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street (1947), which had earned Edmund Gwenn the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In the original screenplay, Jovie is revealed to be a struggling cabaret singer. Buddy sees her perform as part of a 'letter home' montage, while a subplot had involved an ex-boyfriend and band member trying to do Buddy down in order to get Jovie back. But such details vanished in the rewrites and it was only decided to have Jovie sing 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' in the shower when Favreau discovered that Zooey Deschanel had such a good voice. As she told a magazine: 'I remember Jon Favreau telling me that they were catering it to whoever played the part. One actress they were looking at was good at skateboarding. But I had a cabaret act at the time, and I was performing a lot. They knew that I was a singer, so they put that in to be my special thing that he could discover I was good at.'

A still from Step Brothers (2008) With John C. Reilly And Will Ferrell
A still from Step Brothers (2008) With John C. Reilly And Will Ferrell

As she was still learning the movie ropes, however, Deschanel was surprised when she had to lip sync to pre-recorded lyrics, as the running water would have made it impossible to achieve a clear vocal. By contrast, Farrell indulged in 'stream of consciousness singing' in both Walter's office and in Santaland. He also improvised Buddy's joy at hearing that Santa would be coming to the store. As his co-stars often had no idea what he would say next, there was a lot of corpsing on set. 'You went to work every day,' Mary Steenburgen recalled, 'and your biggest challenge was getting through a scene without breaking it. It's part of the beautiful, weird edge that you walk on when you work with Will that you can't stop yourself from laughing at him.' Despite only being 14 years his senior, she would go on to play his mother in Adam McKay's Step Brothers (2008).

Less used to working with funny guys who go off script, James Caan found Ferrell's method hard to take. Speaking to James Corden, Ferrell remembered his colleague's misgivings and how he had changed his mind after seeing the premiere. 'Hey, I've gotta tell you something,' Caan had confided as they left the theatre. 'Every day on set, I thought you were way too over-the-top. But now I see what you're doing. Great job.' As Ferrell confided, 'I just love the thought that there we were, working every day and he was going back to his hotel room going, "Please get me outta this one."'

Ferrell had the last laugh, though, as he gave Caan a gift on the last day of shooting. Referring to Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Trilogy (1972-93), in which Caan had played Sonny Corleone, Ferrell had written: 'Great working with you. The first one is a little bit slow, but the second two are really good.'

Like Caan, Peter Dinklage played his scene straight to highlight Buddy's comic confusion. Favreauu later reflected, 'We picked him because he's a great, great actor. He totally committed to the role, not playing the funny at all. That's the style of comedy that I like and that Will likes - letting the comedy come through the situation and the heavy commitment to the absurd, but never wink or smirk through it.' In fact, the fracas went on longer and ended with Miles Finch banging Buddy's head against a filing cabinet because he still doesn't understand what he's said wrong. 'Dinklage was playing that scene like a drama,' Favreau noted, 'which is what makes it so effective. And Will wasn't letting you see that he was in on the joke at all. He was completely committed as well. And then there was how freaked out everyone was around the table...It's laughter leading into a very deep low point, so it's where it fit in the movie that adds some resonance to it.'

There are lots of lighter moments, of course, including some throwaways for film buffs. The gag about the Christmas tree bending under the ceiling was a deliberate nod towards Jeremiah S. Chechik's National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), while the Central Park Rangers were modelled on the ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings. And, of course, there were also plain silly bits, such as the 15-second belch that was voiced by Maurice LaMarche from Pinky and the Brain (1995-98) after Buddy downs a two-litre bottle of Coke in one gulp.

Guzzling so much sweet stuff played havoc with Ferrell's innards, however, as he threw up after Buddy wolfs the dish of spaghetti, candy, and maple syrup. 'That was tough,' he later admitted. 'I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will - if that's what the job calls for.' Marlon Brando would have been proud of such Method dedication.

'This was Will's movie,' Deschanel says fondly about her co-star. 'He just has such a sweetness and innocence to him. He's able to always go to that place of innocence that allows a character like this to really come to life.' Bob Newhart concurs that it's Ferrell's insight into Buddy's child-like idealism that makes the film work. 'Will could have just come off as a stupid guy who doesn't realize he's a lot bigger than anyone else,' he explained. 'There was a lot of danger in the fact that if the audience didn't go along with Will's persona, it could have been a big flop.'

Jon Favreau, however, knew from the location shoot in New York that Ferrell would cast a spell over the audience. 'Buddy is very forgiving and childlike and innocent, and that spreads to the whole city,' he told Rolling Stone. The memory of 9/11 was still strong in December 2002 and Favreau called the Big Apple being 'a city in mourning'. Making a film around the Empire State Building and Central Park seemed to reclaim Manhattan for all Americans. And Farrell in yellow tights more than did his bit. 'When we had Will in the Lincoln Tunnel, the tunnel was open,' Favreau remembers. 'Same thing with the 59th Street Bridge. Whenever he was out there in his suit, we'd hear screeches and fender-benders and lights smashing. People would be looking at him walking on the side and that would cause a few minor traffic accidents.'

Even more poignant was the montage showing Buddy exploring the city with wide eyes and scarfing the chewing gum stuck to the Subway railings. 'The last day of shooting in New York,' Favreau revealed, 'we just took cameras. We didn't even have the director of photography. We just took a camera man and a film loader and some PAs and went around the city in a van, jumped out and threw people some money and got to use all different locations...with all real people around him. I put him in those situations and he had to improvise and stay in character while dealing with people who, for the most part, didn't even know they were in a movie.' The result is joyous and captures the mood of the metropolis with subtlety and glee.

The finale also sets the soul soaring. As Jovie puts it, 'the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear'. The Berenbaum draft didn't end with the citizenry banding together to belt out 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town'. Instead, the members of Buddy's human family wind up clambering aboard the sleigh to apologise for doubting him, as NYPD cops point their guns skywards.

In the picture, Buddy alone goes along for a ride, while Jovie and Mary lead the crowd in the hope of summoning enough Christmas spirit to help the reindeer. Even the grouchy Walter joins in after Michael accuses him of miming along. Some of the scene was filmed in Central Park, but a field near Riverview was also used. 'We just did that scene over and over,' Steenburgen recalled. 'I remember it being bitterly cold, and it was 3 in the morning. I was tired, but I had the feeling I was in a scene that would stand the test of time.' Even then, Favreau wasn't happy when he saw the sequence in a rough cut and persuaded Steenburgen to wrap up and re-film the line, 'He sees you when you're sleeping.'

He was glad he did, as he felt it gave the scene a magical spirit-redeeming feeling, with 'Buddy changing a lot of people in small ways and overall changing the personality of the city. That's something I think gives the movie heart.' We quite agree.

Twenty Years a Classic

A still from The Polar Express (2004)
A still from The Polar Express (2004)

Shooting wrapped on 7 March 2003 and composer John Debney got to work on his score. Favreau had made a special request that the cues for the snowball fight resembled the rousing music that Elmer Bernstein had written for John Sturges's epic Western, The Magnificent Seven (1960). Complementing Debney's melodies was a selection of classic Christmas songs by the likes of Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Jim Reeves, and Leon Redbone, who also recorded a special version of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' with Zooey Deschanel. Certified a gold disc in 2011, the Elf album is second only to Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express (2004) in the list of Christmas-themed soundtracks.

On the back of largely positive reviews, the picture grossed $220 million worldwide and has proved successful on its four cinematic reissues since 2018. It took its time topping the box-office charts in the UK, however. As Richard Curtis's Love Actually and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King held sway in December 2003, it wasn't until 2020 that Elf finally topped the tree. By this time, a 2010 Broadway musical based on the movie had come and gone, with Sebastian Arcelus as Buddy and Amy Spanger as Jovie.

Edward Asner was the sole member of original cast to report for duty on Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas, an hour-long stop-motion musical made for television in 2014. Cinema Paradiso users can order now to hear Mark Hamill and Rachael MacFarlane voice Walter and Emily Hobbs and Kate Micucci play Jovie. But there's an extra incentive for fans of The Big Bang Theory (2007-18), as Jim Parsons (yep, Sheldon Cooper himself) takes on the role of Buddy.

Naturally, speculation about a sequel has been rife for some time. Scot Armstrong, who had co-written Todd Phillips's Old School (2003) for Will Ferrell and also made uncredited contributions to Elf and Bad Santa, pitched a script in 2005 that took Buddy to the suburbs. Here, he struggles to fit in and even alienates daughter Susie after his antics on Bring Your Dad to School Day. However, he gets a shot at redemption when Koal Kringle kidnaps Papa Elf.

This project seems not to have gone beyond the first draft stage. In the run-up to the 10th anniversary, however, Favreau mentioned that he would not have been averse to a sequel. Within weeks, though, Farrell nixed the idea by stating, 'I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf.'

A still from Zoolander No. 2 (2016) With Will Ferrell
A still from Zoolander No. 2 (2016) With Will Ferrell

He would go on to reprise the roles of Ron Burgundy and Mugatu for Adam McKay's Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) and Ben Stiller's Zoolander 2 (2016). But revisiting Buddy is seemingly not an option. Shortly after Favreau mentioned a follow-up in January 2016, Ferrell told The Hollywood Reporter that he didn't like the story premise. 'I would have had to promote the movie from an honest place,' he confessed, 'which would've been, like, "Oh no, it's not good. I just couldn't turn down that much money." And I thought, "Can I actually say those words? I don't think I can, so I guess I can't do the movie."'

James Caan let the cat out of the bag in September 2020, however. 'We were gonna do it,' he told an interviewer, 'and I thought "Oh my God, I finally have a franchise movie. I can make some money, let my kids do what the hell they want to do."' But, 'the director and Will didn't get along very well. Will wanted to do it, and he didn't want the director. He had it in his contract. It was one of those things.' In his defence, Favreau has also stated that Elf 2 would be 'a big gamble'. As he said in 2016, 'If I don't do anything I'd be very happy with what it is. The minute you take it on, you try to add on to something, you always run the risk of diminishing from the original. I do have tremendous fondness for that film and you don't want to do anything to screw up the legacy of it.'

There are, however, those who think that the film has already tarnished its reputation with some of its artistic choices. Peter Dinklage taking ownership of the 'angry elf' scene has deflected many of the accusations of sizeism. But some find the use of the word 'special' in the North Pole sequence to be prejudicial, as Buddy is, in their view, 'a cognitively disabled adult'. Walter's insults have also been deemed cruel in the way they expose how society thoughtlessly treats people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Others have countered by claiming that Buddy's rite of passage demonstrates that a lot of adults feel isolated and alienated and that it's okay to be confused while finding one's way through life's uncertainties.

Another debate surrounds the song, 'Baby, It's Cold Outside', whose call and response format has led some to detect a coercive aspect to the lyrics. They were written in 1944 by Frank Loesser to be sung as a party piece with his wife, Lynn Garland. She was disappointed when he sold the song to MGM for Edward Buzzell's Neptune's Daughter (1949) after, ironically, it was decided that the words to Loesser's ' (I'd Like to Take You on a) Slow Boat to China' were deemed too risqué.

Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams sang the screen original, although it was parodied later in the picture by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton, with the former making the running as she had earlier in the year with Frank Sinatra in the 'Come Up to My Place' number in Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's On the Town. Such was the popularity of the song that nine versions were recorded in 1949, including one by Doris Day and Bob Hope and one in which James Stewart tries to make his excuses to Bing Crosby. Even by the time Dean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell recorded their famous duet in 1959, the lyrics were considered provocative because they suggested that a modern woman had the right to spend the night with a man regardless of prevailing social convention.

Following its use in Elf, 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' was recorded by such attuned female artists as Dolly Parton, Anne Murray, Norah Jones, Rita Coolidge, Christina Aguilera, and Lady Gaga. Nevertheless, it was drawn into the cancel culture debate after several North American radio stations barred it from their playlists. Some have pointed out that Buddy sneaking into the women's washroom to sing with a showering Jovie reinforces the creepiness of the lyrics. But we'll leave it up to you to make your own decisions about what you consider appropriate to show to the younger members of your family.

A still from Wonka (2023)
A still from Wonka (2023)

The fact that the Empire State Building was illuminated with green and yellow lights to mark the 20th anniversary of Elf's release suggests that it remains iconic. Indeed, it made the box-office Top 10 in the UK alongside such kid-friendly fare as Wonka, Wish, and The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds. And it's not too late to invite Buddy to your own home this Christmas. Simply find the film's entry on the Cinema Paradiso website and click 'Add'.

Uncover landmark films on demand
Browse our collection at Cinema Paradiso
Subscription starts from £15.99 a month.