Buddy the Elf! What's your favorite Christmas movie?
For anyone born around or after 2003, that answer is probably Jon Favreau's Yuletide tale of Will Ferrell's oversized elf who makes a big trip to the Big Apple in the hopes of reconnecting with his long-lost father, played by the late James Caan. A huge hit during its initial theatrical release — to the tune of a nearly $230 million worldwide gross — Elf has spent the past 20 years in regular seasonal rotation on streaming services, cable television and big-screen revivals. It's also spawned a Broadway musical, an animated special and all manner of assorted merch.
Truly, Elf is the holiday gift that keeps on giving. But the film might have turned into a lump of coal had the producing team listened to a pre-Favreau candidate for the director's chair who pushed them to make an "edgy" version of Buddy's PG-rated story. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2018, Elf producer Todd Komarnicki revealed the story behind the offer they wisely refused.
"[The director] was like, 'The movie's not edgy enough — nobody's gonna come to this movie,'" Komarnicki remembered. The unnamed auteur's idea for upping the edginess factor was giving Buddy's love interest, Jovie (played by Zooey Deschanel), an abusive boyfriend who shared her grimy New York apartment.
Watch our 2018 interview with Todd Komarnicki below
"'I imagine a lot of the movie taking place in her apartment on the Lower East Side,'" Komarnicki said, mimicking the filmmaker. '"I see one of those dented doors with the big metal thing, but it's not safe for her because Jovie's boyfriend beats her.'"
Needless to say, that candidate wasn't hired. "I think that director is currently in prison," the producer joked.
Thankfully, Elf was never in danger of being put in movie jail. To celebrate two decades of Buddy the Elf's antics, we combed through our archives to find the best Elf-related stories that we've learned from the beloved film's cast and crew. Grab a bowl of Buddy's favorite pasta and dig in.
Jim Carrey wasn't anyone's Buddy
According to Hollywood lore, when David Berenbaum's Elf script was first passed around the town circa 1993, Jim Carrey was the leading candidate to play Buddy, especially after the one-two punch of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask the following year made him the industry's most in-demand comic actor. But by the time Komarnicki and his producing partner, Jon Berg, acquired the script and set the movie up at New Line Cinema, they had someone else in mind.
"Jon and I read the script very close to each other — in fact sitting on each other's lap," he joked. "As soon as we read it, he said 'Will' and I said 'Ferrell.' There was no question that this script had one person intended for it."
At that time, Ferrell's star was on the rise thanks to his status as Saturday Night Live's resident scene-stealer, as well as memorable supporting turns in movies like Old School. Elf ended up being the film that cemented his stardom, and Komarnicki insists that Carrey was never in contention despite his still-potent star power. "For us, it's always been Will."
The song doesn't remain the same
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Zooey Deschanel singing the version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that enraptures Buddy. But in a 2021 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the New Girl star joked that she was "probably their fifth choice" for the role of Jovie. "I was not a known person, but [Jon Favreau] wanted whoever they cast to be someone who had a special skill."
After toying with the idea that Jovie's special skill might be skateboarding — based on the fact that one of Deschanel's rivals for the part had some Tony Hawk-style tricks up her sleeve — Favreau had a eureka moment after hearing her sing. Instantly, Jovie's skill became cabaret crooner who specializes in songs from an older era. "Jon knew that I could sing this kind of old-time style music, [because] I had a cabaret act," Deschanel explained. "So then he tailored that part to me."
Favreau settled on Frank Loesser's 1944 tune "Baby, It's Cold Outside," because it was a duet that both Deschanel and Ferrell could sing, creating the first connection between their characters. But in the 60 years since that song was written, it's become something of a lightning rod for controversy due to lyrics that have been interpreted as predatory.
"It's had a soft cancel, that song," Deschanel admitted, adding that Favreau specifically had her sing "the predator part" to make Elf's version more modern. "When you see people playing it, it's supposed to be coy. But of course, when you look at the lyrics through today's lens and you just think of it as a pop song, it's not one that would be written now. It was written as two characters that are very much of the time they were written and definitely not how we want to teach our young men to be."
Peter Billingsley's stealth cameo
Here's a Christmas story for you — Ralphie Parker apparently grew up to become an employee at Santa's workshop. Two decades after coveting a "Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time," in Bob Clark's 1983 favorite, former child star Peter Billingsley made an ultra-brief cameo in Elf courtesy of his pal and future Iron Man collaborator, Favreau.
"Jon was doing Elf and he [said], 'Hey, would you do a little cameo on this thing?' Billingsley told Yahoo Entertainment in 2022.. "And I was joking [at first]. I was like, 'You know, you can’t just get the Christmas magic.' He's like, ‘I want the Christmas magic!'"
Today, at approximately 11:19 AM, my life changed forever when I found out this dude from Elf was also Ralphie from A Christmas Story pic.twitter.com/kBVj4fE2RV
— Pepperjack (@_jack_Schaller) November 29, 2018
Billingsley declined to be credited for his brief appearance and Favreau tried to aid his friend's desire for anonymity by tweaking his audio. "Some people started to discover, including myself, that Jon raised my voice in post-production," the actor/producer explained. "That's why I actually don't even sound like myself. He took all the elves's voices up, so I'm pretty well hidden in that." Well-hidden... except for Ralphie's unmistakable baby blues, of course.
The suit made the elf
Ferrell wore some half-dozen Buddy costumes during the course of shooting Elf. And in 2021, one of those outfits — the "Hero-1" costume that was used for all of the actor's fittings — sold at a Prop Store auction for nearly $300,000. "We used it throughout the fittings, tweaking it and making sure it's perfect," Elf costume designer, Laura Jean Shannon, told Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the auction. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's pristine! This was the one that we decided had the best fit."
According to Shannon, Buddy's look was based on ancient folklore from Nordic nations, as well as more recent elf designs from ’60s-era Rankin-Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And she used actual period construction to produce the suit, even if that added time and expense.
"We only used things that existed at the turn of the century, so we had fiddleback seams on his jacket, which is a throwback to the historical way of constructing a men's jacket with the tails [in the back] and the cutaway at the front," Shannon explained. "And the jacket closed with hook and eye [fasteners] all the way down. I really wanted to avoid the sound of Velcro! It was really important to me that it would be this timeless suit that was cobbled together by tiny elf hands that had been doing it for centuries."
Ferrell rejected a big payday for Elf 2
Apparently, you can put a price on success. After Elf blew up big time, New Line approached Ferrell with an inconceivable dollar amount to star in Elf 2 — $29 million. But the actor just as inconceivably turned them down.
"I would have had to promote the movie from an honest place, which would've been, like, 'Oh no, it's not good. I just couldn't turn down that much money,'" Ferrell told The Hollywood Reporter two years ago. "And I thought, 'Can I actually say those words? I don't think I can, so I guess I can't do the movie.'"
Interestingly, in 2020, Caan offered an alternate explanation for why Elf 2 didn't happen, revealing that Ferrell and Favreau "didn't get along" during production. (The Godfather star died last year.) "'We were gonna do it and I thought, 'Oh my god, I finally got a franchise movie, I could make some money, let my kids do what the hell they want to do,'" Caan said on a Cleveland radio show. "Will wanted to do it, [but] he didn’t want the director [Favreau], and he had it in his contract. It was one of those things."
Elf is currently available to stream on Max