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Home > Looking Back on ‘Elf’ On Its 20th Anniversary

Looking Back on ‘Elf’ On Its 20th Anniversary

Elf

The Christmas Classic That Almost Wasn’t

Twenty years after its release, Elf is now considered a modern Christmas classic that many families have on a must-watch shortlist each holiday season. But the holiday blockbuster wasn’t always certain, and legal troubles, budget and time constraints, and the then-yet unproven track records of the director and lead actor challenged the production. Let’s look back at what hurdles the filmmakers overcame to make Elf the movie held dear in viewers’ hearts today.

Troubled Development 

The original script for Elf was written circa 1993. Elf has a timeless feel, partially because both at the time it was written and when it was shot in 2002/2003, the world was a bit simpler. This was pre-smart phones (almost pre-cell phones) and, like many films of the early 2000s, draws a clear line in the sand between the before and after that is our current data-driven world. At the time, the film was intended as a vehicle for Chris Farley, a rising star. Still, the writer David Berenbaum wasn’t happy with that choice and waited for a new producer to champion the then up-and-coming SNL alum Will Ferrell as the titular character.

Under the direction of Jon Favreau, Rankin/Bass films were used as inspiration for the sets and costumes, which gave the production a not-so-subtle nod to another Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In fact, according to a 2020 article in “Independent,” UK, during the clearance phase of the production, there was fear the film would be unreleasable due to its similarities to the Rankin/Bass property. Favereau, undeniably influenced by the signature style, relied on the Chiodo brothers, a special effects team famous for stop-motion work, to deliver a pastiche of the Rudolph special and the animated films made by Rankin/Bass. 

Similarities between the two films are undeniable, especially considering the costumes and stop-motion elements. Anxious New Line Cinemas lawyers descended on the production, questioning every prop, every set, every costume. For a moment, there was debate about changing Buddy’s costume from green to blue, which would almost certainly have ended production since, at that point, so much of the film had already been shot. Fortunately, some quick work from the legal team ensured production could continue unabated and unchanged; Favreau’s vision would remain intact.

Indie Filmmaking at its Finest

Greg Gardiner, the Director of Photography for the film, embraced an indie guerilla filmmaking approach to much of the outdoor scenes in Elf, shot on location in December 2002 in New York City and Vancouver. The first shot filmed was Will Ferrell as Buddy Hobbs, the titular Elf, coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel with a small camera crew in tow. Likewise, shots of Buddy on the street, talking to people, walking through traffic, spinning in revolving doors, and eating gum, all shot guerilla style, just grabbing whatever shots took the DP’s fancy, giving the production an authentic, unscripted feel, which adds to the rambunctiousness of it all.

Due to the cost of filming in New York, the production shifted to Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a sound stage big enough to build the North Pole, so the producers rented out a hockey rink, where they built Santa’s Village, as well as the winter forest and breakaway ice that Buddy uses to sail to New York. Most of the interior sets were filmed at an old abandoned mental health facility, including the Hobbs’ apartment, Greenway Press, the jail, the doctor’s office, Santaland in Gimbel’s department store, and the orphanage. Interestingly enough, this is the exact location where A Nightmare on Elm Street was filmed decades earlier. Elf

Due to the cost of filming in New York, the production shifted to Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a sound stage big enough to build the North Pole, so the producers rented out a hockey rink, where they built Santa’s Village, as well as the winter forest and breakaway ice that Buddy uses to sail to New York. Most of the interior sets were filmed at an old abandoned mental health facility, including the Hobbs’ apartment, Greenway Press, the jail, the doctor’s office, Santaland in Gimbel’s department store, and the orphanage. Interestingly enough, this is the same location where A Nightmare on Elm Street was filmed decades earlier.

Forced Perspective, an old trick that has fallen out of favor, was used to create the larger-than-life version of Buddy in the land of elves. This technique, which placed the actors at vastly different places on set but compressed the depth of the image so they appeared to be standing next to each other, was an in-camera technique that made Buddy appear much larger than his fellow elves. Director Jon Favreau was adamant about using as little CGI as possible, but Forced Perspective was so time-consuming a second unit was assigned to pre-rig the shots the night before so the day crew could focus on filming. This combination of diligence and resourcefulness was one of the reasons the film was so successful.

Christmas Charm and Allusion

When one thinks of what goes into a Christmas classic, certain elements come to mind: Santa, Elves, Snowmen, sure, the Tree at Rockefeller Center, yep, but what else? Carolers and singing, of course, a certain lack of Christmas spirit, Santa sneaking into houses to deliver presents – these elements are all present in Elf, making it a sort of Christmas feast of ideas. 

While the plot can at times seem haphazardly strewn together and certainly doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny, what the film does exceptionally well is make viewers laugh. Scarcely does a minute go by without multiple laughs or at least polite chuckles, and this seemingly endless mirth helps to push the story forward, much like Ted Lasso, Buddy the Elf and his endless positive optimism relentlessly charm viewers who lovingly turn a blind eye to plot holes.

Christmas in New York has a sort of magical quality; the oft-times direct New York attitude seems to soften a bit under the Holiday snowfall, and the contrast between the brusque New Yorker and the Christmas Joy is fertile ground for narrative. Case in point, the character of Walter Hobbs, played by ‘Jimmy the Dream’ James Caan, a cynical children’s book publishing executive, paints a lovely Scrooge-like figure who is effectively stealing from a nun the first time met on screen. Actors like Bob Newhart, Zoe Deschanel, and Bob Newhart, meeting at different points in their journeys as actors, all meshed well in the ensemble comedy. Casting was deliberate in seeking out actors with wry, dry wits to contrast with Buddy’s over-the-top good nature, and this juxtaposition of idealisms is, by and large, what gives Elf such cheer. 

The film is just chock full of Easter Eggs and allusions to other movies.  The scene with Buddy on the 9th Street bridge alludes to a similar scene in It’s A Wonderful Life, where George Bailey contemplates his life’s worth. A street scene where Buddy first enters New York intentionally replicates a similar shoot from Tootsie in 1982. Likewise, the Central Park Rangers are shot in a dark silhouette and were a tongue-in-cheek homage to the ringwraiths from the “Lord of the Rings” film series, released in annual installments over three years from 2001 to 2003. Another fun gem is when Buddy leaves the Hobb’s home, he is caught on camera by a local news affiliate, and the image is meant as an homage to the sighting of another mythical character, Bigfoot, from a 16mm reel in 1967. The filmmakers were having fun making the movie, and that love translates to the screen, elevating the family film to something truly timeless. 

A 20th Century Holiday Classic

Since its release in 2003, Elf has gone on to become a cultural milestone.  Both a critical and commercial success, which launched an off-Broadway musical in 2010, and an animated special in 2014. And while a sequel is unlikely at this point, Ferrell having declined a lucrative 29 million dollar offer, audiences will continue to cherish what has come to be a beloved Christmas classic for decades to come. Elf is currently streaming on multiple platforms, including Max and Hulu.

Elf

Elf (2003) Official New Line Cinema Trailer 

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Caleb aims to write high-concept genre pieces that focus on broken families. His works have been recognized by the Nicholl's Fellowship, the ISA, Screencraft, Launchpad, and Nickelodeon.When not writing Caleb enjoys video games and tabletop RPGs, camping, and is a connoisseur of fine bourbon.

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I am an aspiring author living and working out of Honolulu, Hawaii. I received my bachelor's degree in Art History at Westmont College and then pursued a master's in Museum Studies at the University of Hawaii. I am currently working on a few novels, and am thankful for the opportunity to expand my creative writing voice at Dead Talk Live.