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Why Will Ferrell’s ‘Elf’ became a modern classic

Almost 20 years later, the movie still tops the best Christmas movie lists

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Will Ferrell in Elf (2003)

Will Ferrell in “Elf.”

Warner Home Video

It’s common for New Yorkers to witness a Buddy sighting this time of the year — that’s his turf, after all.

The New York Police Department spotted the human elf while he hopped across a crosswalk — by jumping on only the white stripes — late last month.

“Bye, Buddy, we hope you find your dad!” NYPD’s 19th Precinct tweeted, quoting a line from the movie “Elf” that the person’s outfit was inspired by, according to Today.

The story follows an oversized and overenthusiastic elf named Buddy, played by Will Ferrell, who journeys from the North Pole to New York City to meet his biological dad, Walter Hobbs, played by James Caan. The father didn’t even know Buddy existed, but he is in dire need of some Christmas spirit — something the human elf is an expert in.

The film was released in 2003 but has remained culturally relevant over the span of nearly two decades. For starters, it inspired a Broadway production “Elf: The Musical,” and the 2014 animated television special “Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas.”

It’s easily a modern classic. There is a reason “Elf” always makes it on the list of best Christmas movies of all time, including lists by Thrillist and Rotten Tomatoes.

No, it never received a Golden Globe or Oscar nomination. But it still manages to touch hearts and force out many full-bellied laughs.

The sweet

“Elf” is a holiday-themed film with a fresh take. Walter, who has a son and a wife, isn’t too keen on Buddy being around at first.

“What do you want? Some money?” he asks the human elf, per IMDb.

“No! I just wanted to meet you and thought maybe you might want to meet me,” Buddy responds.

It’s hard to get past the genuine nature of Ferrell’s character, even though he may come across as severely annoying at first. Consider the scene where Buddy tries to bond with his stepbrother Michael, Walter’s younger son.

“Wow, you’re fast. I’m glad I caught up to you. I waited 5 hours for you. Why is your coat so big? So, good news — I saw a dog today. Have you seen a dog? You probably have. How was school? Was it fun? Did you get a lot of homework? Huh? Do you have any friends? Do you have a best friend? Does he have a big coat, too?” Buddy says as Michael cuts him off with a harsh “Go away!”

But the more time the Hobbs family spends with the strange human from the North Pole, the more they grow to love and accept him — a timeless theme.

Apart from family and Christmas spirit, this film also takes a quick dip into the rom-com genre. Zooey Deschanel plays Buddy’s love interest Jovie, and together, the two make a wholesome pairing.

Buddy decorates every inch of Gimbels, the department store where Jovie works, and sings an unusual Christmas carol at the top of his lungs and very off-key to cheer up his crush.

“I’m singing / I’m in a store / and I’m siiiiiingiiiiing! / I’m in a store / and I’m siiiiiingiiiiing!” he belts while the Gimbels manager scolds him.

The funny

The film is a goldmine of great quotes, especially when Ferrell’s acting chops meet David Berenbaum’s quick-witted screenplay. Berenbaum is behind the works “The Haunted Mansion” and “Strange Magic.”

“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup,” Buddy says as a matter of fact while at the dinner table with the Hobbs family.

The most hilarious is a series of scenes showing Buddy going around New York City, waving at strangers, taking the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” sign too literally and making collecting flyers a game. With a setting like that and Ferrell in an elf costume, the fun is endless.

“The first two weeks of shooting were kind of all the exteriors in New York. So, still kind of discovering what this movie’s gonna be and running around New York City in yellow tights,” Ferrell said in an interview in 2018, per Today. “People recognizing me from ‘Saturday Night Live’ going, ‘You OK? What’s going on?’”

“This is either going to be a home run or people are going to go, ‘Whatever happened to you? Why did you do that one about the elf?’”

Of course, director Jon Favreau, who is also behind “Iron Man” and the 2019 “Lion King” adaptation, deserves credit where credit is due, starting with reworking Buddy’s character to make it more innocent.

Inspired by the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials from the ’80s, Favreau, in an interview with Rolling Stone, said he wanted to steer clear of the “big CGI extravaganza” and stick to models and matter paintings.

As for the illusion of Buddy appearing giant-like during the scenes at the North Pole, that’s all forced perspective where “one set is raised and closer and smaller, and one is bigger and further away,” the director explained.

Why there will (probably) never be an ‘Elf 2’

As great as this hit is, there will probably never be another “Elf” movie. For one, Caan, who plays Buddy’s biological dad, passed away earlier this year at the age of 82.

But even before, that Ferrell seemed opposed to the idea of a sequel. The “Step Brothers” actor was asked in an interview with IGN in 2016 whether he was considering another “Elf” movie.

“I don’t think either of us are ever on that side of ever wanting to rush into a sequel of things that we really care about. If you can figure that out and come up with a story that justifies having an extension of the first one, then great. I’ve been asked and begged and prodded to do a sequel to that movie,” he said.

“It's a classic fish out of water story and it’s its own thing,” he said of the picture.

Back in 2020, Caan said that he thought the second movie was going to happen but that Ferrell and Favreau “didn’t get along.”

“We were gonna do it and I thought, ... ‘I finally got a franchise movie, I could make some money, let my kids do what ... they want to do.’ And the director and Will didn’t get along very well,” Caan said in a radio interview, per The Wrap. “So, Will wanted to do it, he didn’t want the director, and he had it in his contract, it was one of those things.”

“Elf” is rated PG and available to stream on HBO Max.