“Christmas Spirit is about believing, not seeing. If the whole world saw me, all would be lost.”
The yuletide comedy “Elf” (2003) has become a perennial favorite of mine. It happens to have the right amount of wit, silliness and warmth while avoiding treacle. There’s also the enviable quality of spirit of the main character Buddy – who’s manic optimism in the face of the absurdity and cruelty of life is exactly the type of view point that I need in order to get me through the last few days of the strangest year in our lives. “I planned out our whole day. First, we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle,” says Buddy.
Visually, I love that, in the first half of the movie at the North Pole, director Jon Favreau recreates with live actors the nostalgic look of the Rankin Bass Christmas TV special we all grew up watching – “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer.” It had such a distinct look. It looked like the action was taking place inside of a snow globe – with its ever-present powdery snowflakes. It had a vivid color palette and stop-motion animation featuring tiny doll-like figures who were bright-eyed. Rudolph had to overcome some childhood shame, and if you recall, the rest of the plot is a bit insane. Do you remember that Hermey is an elf who runs away from Santa’s workshop because he wants to be a dentist instead of making toys?! We never think it’s preposterous because we took its logic at face value. Favreau presents us “Elf” without cynicism from the start, and we go along for the ride. As Buddy exclaims, “It’s just nice to meet another human that shares my affinity for elf culture.”
“Well, there are some things you should know about New York. First off, if you see gum on the street, leave it there. It isn’t free candy.” warns Santa – played by gruff Ed Asner – as Buddy heads to the Big Apple to find his real dad. You see, Buddy – is a human who was raised to believe he’s an elf. He hopped by mistake on the Big Guy’s bag of toys during a visit to an orphanage – and ended up in the North Pole. Papa Elf (a perfectly deadpan Bob Newhart) reared him as best he could, yet Buddy gets it that he’s not like the others. “Of course you’re not an elf. You’re six-foot-three and had a beard since you were fifteen,” he’s told by Leon the Snowman
James Caan plays his dad – and there’s so much delight in seeing this usual tough guy play the biological father to Buddy. He’s an embittered children’s book publisher whose heart’s shrunk – and he has forgotten to pay attention to his wife and his other middle school-aged son. He’s not ready to welcome an overgrown elf into his life.
Buddy makes his way to a department store where he fits right into their “Toyland” display for the holidays– although he challenges their make-believe Santa. “You stink! You smell like beef and cheese, you don’t smell like Santa,” he bellows. It is there that he meets Jovie – a disenchanted holiday employee – played by the irresistibly quirky Zooey Deschanel. In one of the most disarmingly charming moments, Buddy innocently walks into the women’s locker room and hears her crooning to the now politically incorrect “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s so off-kilter and romantic. “I think you’re really beautiful and I feel really warm when I’m around you and my tongue swells up,” he professes. “So… do you want to eat food?”
The rest of the cast is just as surprisingly satisfying. Mary Steenburgen is the only actress I can think of that would make it look acceptable to watch a man in elf costume eat spaghetti and maple syrup. Peter Dinklage – way before his “Game of Thrones” fame – has a brief but hysterical role as a writer who’s grown tired of being made fun of for his size. As Buddy, this is Will Ferrell’s best performance. This is not a man-child shtick. This is a child trapped in the body of a grown man who truly believes that unconditional happiness is possible. He’s not playing it for laughs, but they do come as forcefully as a locomotive.
Eventually the plot veers towards a predictable last reel, but it doesn’t ruin the effervescence. “Elf” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and most importantly – it has so much heart. At a time on the calendar that we desperately need to crack a smile and feel some holiday cheer, this recently-minted holiday classic delivers.
Buddy: “I thought maybe we could make ginger bread houses, and eat cookie dough, and go ice skating, and maybe even hold hands.”
Available to stream on AMC, AMC Premiere, FuboTV, DIRECTV, EROSNOW, Sling, Philo, Spectrum and STARZ via Subscription/Satellite, Hulu, Philo and Prime Video, . Available to rent on Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by David Berenbaum
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Edward Asner
and Bob Newhart
Director Jon Favreau on Bringing “Elf” to the Screen
“I had worked with Judd Apatow, who had nothing to do with ‘Elf,’ when I directed an episode of ‘Undeclared’ and worked on a pilot that didn’t get picked up. When I was working with him, his manager, who also managed Will, sent me a copy of [the screenplay of] ‘Elf.’ I had already directed ‘Made,’ and people knew me from ‘Swingers.’ I took a look at the script, 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. I was asked to take another look at it. They were looking for somebody to rewrite it and possibly direct it. And I remember reading it, 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. So for a year, I rewrote the script. It turned into more of a PG movie from a PG-13. He was a darker character in the script I had read originally. The character became a bit more innocent, and the world became more of a pastiche of the Rankin/Bass films. The studio [New Line] read it and agreed to make it, and that’s when I was brought on to direct.” (rollingstone.com)
Director Jon Favreau on the Making of “Elf”
“We didn’t have a tremendous amount of dough. Part of the pitch, to make it a Rankin/Bass world and not a big CGI extravaganza – part of it is my aesthetic. I like the techniques and technologies used when I was growing up. I like motion-control, models, matte paintings. It feels timeless. And stop-motion is my favorite. There were a lot of challenges to do that stuff in stop-motion. I had to fight very hard not to do that stuff in CGI. There’s no CGI in there, except for some snowing. The forced perspective is where you build two sets, one smaller than the other. They had recently used that technique for ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ but really, it’s the same technique that was used for ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People.’ One set is raised and closer and smaller, and one is bigger and further away. And if you 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. We did that for all the shots at the North Pole. 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. It made for great souvenirs. I have a Louisville Slugger that’s four and a half feet long in my office, that the elves were building. (rollingstone.com)
Favreau on Filming in New York
“Buddy is very forgiving and childlike and innocent, and that spreads to the whole city. And remember, that was a time, when we were scouting, that was not long after 9/11. Having grown up in New York, it was so sad to me that people thought of Manhattan in how it related to 9/11. It was a city in mourning. And to go and make a movie about Christmas where the Empire State Building was something he dreamed about from a snow globe and his father worked there – it was almost like reclaiming Manhattan. When we were scouting, we were being photographed. People would approach us at the Lincoln Tunnel or the 59th Street Bridge. Those were sensitive areas. There was a tremendous amount of paranoia at that time in the city. They had to get to know us. When we had Will in the Lincoln Tunnel, the tunnel was open. 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.” (rollingstone.com)
About Author David Berenbaum
David Berenbaum is a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has written the screenplays for New Line Cinema’s, “Elf”, starring Will Ferrell and Disney’s, “The Haunted Mansion.” He has also co-written the screenplays for Paramount’s, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and Lucasfilm’s, “Strange Magic.” He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two sons and chorkie-poo, Winnie. (2019austinfilmfestivalconfe.sched.com)
About Director Jon Favreau
Jon Favreau was born in Queens, New York, the only child of schoolteachers Madeleine and Charles Favreau. Favreau attended the Bronx High School of Science before enrolling at Queens College and working on Wall Street. By the mid-1980s, he had relocated to Chicago, Illinois, to take part the comedy and improv scene there. Favreau eventually made his way to Hollywood, California, appearing in films like “Folks!” (1992) and “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” (1994), as well as on the popular television show “Seinfeld.” After his father gave him screenwriting software as a gift, Favreau penned a script about his experiences as an actor on the Hollywood scene; it was eventually picked up by director Doug Liman, made on a small budget and distributed by Miramax. The final product, 1996’s “Swingers,” became an indie fave and starred Favreau along with his real-life close friend, actor Vince Vaughn. Favreau went on to be featured in several films throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, including “Deep Impact” (1998), “Love & Sex” (2000) and “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003). He also earned a recurring part on the beloved TV sitcom “Friends” during its third season, playing Pete, a computer mogul romantically linked to Monica (Courteney Cox). In the summer of 2001, Favreau made his feature film directorial debut with “Made,” a Mafioso comedy in which he co-starred once again with Vaughn. (The two would work together in additional films over the years, including 2006’s “The Break-Up” and 2008’s “Four Christmases.”)
In November 2003, Favreau made his sophomore effort behind the camera with the holiday hit comedy “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell. Favreau continued his TV work as well, serving as producer and host of “Dinner for Five,” an IFC program which premiered in 2002 and served up Hollywood insiders talking about the biz. The show was nominated for a 2005 Emmy Award for outstanding nonfiction series. Favreau entered the comic book film world with a small part in “Batman Forever” (1995) and with his depiction of Franklin Nelson in 2003’s “Daredevil.” Years later, he took the reins as director and executive producer of “Iron Man” (2008), a big-budget film adaptation of the Marvel Comics series of the same name. Starring Robert Downey Jr. as inventor Tony Stark, “Iron Man” was a major success among moviegoers, paving the way for two sequels. Having worked as executive producer on 2012’s “The Avengers” and the TV series “Revolution,” Favreau recent on-camera work include the 2014 comedy “Chef” which he also wrote and directed. He produced and directed the 2016 movie “The Jungle Book.” (allamericanspeakers.com) His most recent projects include “The Lion King” (2019) and “The Chef Show” in 2019-2020.