The film starring Will Ferrell celebrates its 20th anniversary this year
Elf is turning 20 years old!
The movie centers around the hilarious antics of Ferrell’s character Buddy, a human raised by Santa’s elves who sets out to find his biological father in the real world.
While the film is well-known for its star-studded cast and iconic quotes, there are a few fun facts about Elf you might not know about.
For example: Ferrell actually wasn’t the first choice to play the notable elf! Plus, there are plenty of fun holiday Easter eggs throughout, including some celebrity cameos.
In honor of the film’s anniversary, read ahead for some of the most fascinating facts about the movie.
Jim Carrey was reportedly the first choice to play Buddy
Though it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Buddy, Ferrell wasn’t the first choice for the titular character. When the script for the movie first emerged in 1993, Jim Carrey was attached to star, per Vulture. However, by the time the film went into production, Carrey had moved on from the role.
Interestingly enough, Carrey did end up playing another iconic Christmas character: the Grinch in 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Elf was heavily inspired by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Many aspects of the movie, such as Buddy’s outfit, were inspired by other classic holiday films. Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2020, director Jon Favreau explained that when he first got the script, “it was a much darker version of the film.”
He decided to rework the script to make it sweeter, inspired by the holiday films of his childhood. “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,” he told the publication.
“So for a year, I rewrote the script. It turned into more of a PG movie from a PG-13,” he continued. “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.”
The film’s director makes a cameo in the movie
Not only did Favreau play a big role in the film’s script, but he also made a cameo in the movie! Before playing Happy Hogan in Marvel films such as Iron Man and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Favreau had a small role as Buddy’s doctor in Elf (pictured right). Additionally, he voices the narwhal who recites the memorable line, “Bye, Buddy. Hope You find your dad!”
Related: The Cast of Elf: Where Are They Now?
There isn’t much CGI in the film
Keeping with the Rankin/Bass aesthetic, Favreau told Rolling Stone he didn’t want to make the film “a big CGI extravaganza," preferring instead to use practical sets and manual animation. In fact, he said the only CGI in the film is “some snowing.”
“I like motion-control, models, matte paintings,” he told the publication. “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.”
To make Buddy appear larger than everyone else, Favreau revealed they used “forced perspective,” where you build two sets, with one smaller than the other.
“We did that for all the shots at the North Pole,” he said. “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 [before CGI], 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.”
Many scenes weren’t actually filmed in New York City
New York City is prominently featured throughout the movie, and while the production did film at notable locations throughout the Big Apple, many of the interior shots were actually filmed at a sound stage in Vancouver.
Initially, the department store where Buddy accidentally lands a job was meant to be Macy's, but they had to pivot due to one key creative difference: “Macy’s was willing to let us shoot there, use their Santaland, even incorporate us into the parade,” Favreau told Rolling Stone. “However, one of the stipulations was, we would have had to remove the Artie Lange scene, where Santa is revealed to be a fake, because their Santa has to be real.”
“We had to think long and hard about it,” he recalled. “We ended up filming it in the cafeteria of a mental hospital in Vancouver instead of Macy’s because we had to build our own version of it, because we were unwilling to change the content.” He added that they ended up naming the store Gimbel’s as a nod to Miracle on 34th Street.
“Gimbel’s was a name that was owned by a third party, and we were able to license that and create our own version of it,” he continued. “Ultimately, it’s better than having it be Macy’s. It gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted creatively.”
The “throne of lies” scene was shot in one take
Speaking of that Santaland scene, in which Buddy tells Santa (Artie Lange) that he sits on a “throne of lies” after realizing he’s not the real Santa, the fight scene was filmed in one take.
Favreau and Lange told 20/20 that the actors only had one shot to get the scene right, because it took the movie's art department over two weeks to create Buddy's over-the-top LEGO cityscape, Lite Brite displays, and miniature train setup.
“They have to smash the whole [thing] — so we don’t really have a lot of resets,” Favreau said.
“We shot right up until we destroy the place," Lange said. "So we had one take to destroy it. So Favreau says, ‘Just go nuts — but we got one take.’”
The “Baby It’s Cold Outside” scene was written for Zooey Deschanel
Another beloved moment from the film is Zooey Deschanel and Ferrell’s duet of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which was all thanks to Deschanel’s casting (which also almost didn't happen; in 2018, she revealed to Variety that she filled in when the original actress cast had to drop out).
In 2020, the New Girl actress told Entertainment Weekly that the shower singing scene was written in after she was cast in the movie.
"I remember [director] Jon Favreau telling me that they were catering it to whoever played the part," Deschanel told the publication. "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."
Speaking with PEOPLE, casting director Susie Farris added that Deschanel’s “innocence and vulnerability” made her perfect for the character. “Obviously, her voice was a tremendous help just in terms of her character,” she added. “I feel like that brought a whole other level, that she's actually a singer, and just that scene where she's singing, it was so touching to me.”
Buddy’s belch wasn’t recorded by Will Ferrell
In the film, Buddy lets out a long belch after consuming a ton of sugary food, but Ferrell didn't produce the outrageous sound himself. It was actually recorded by famous voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who is best known for his roles as the Brain in Animaniacs as well as its spin-off Pinky and the Brain.
During the Vulture Festival in 2016, LaMarche revealed the secret behind his belch, noting that it’s actually an effect. “I kind of turn my tongue inside out and then I do like a deep glottal rasp,” he explained before demonstrating it for the audience.
Another famous Christmas movie actor makes a cameo in the movie
Elf didn’t just draw inspiration from classic holiday films, it also included an actor from one! Peter Billingsley, who famously played Ralphie in 1983’s A Christmas Story, plays Ming Ming, the head elf of Santa’s workshop.
Fun fact: Elf isn’t the only holiday film Billingsley has appeared in. In addition to reprising his role as Ralphie in the 2022 sequel A Christmas Story Christmas, he also made a cameo in Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon’s film Four Christmases.
There was almost a sequel
There was almost another Elf, but it went back on the shelf! In 2021, Ferrell revealed that he turned down a second film due to it having a similar premise as the original movie.
"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. "And I thought, 'Can I actually say those words? I don't think I can, so I guess I can't do the movie.'"
According to THR, he would have been paid $29 million for taking part in the sequel.
In September 2020, James Caan, who played Buddy's father, Walter Hobbs, told the radio show The Fan in Cleveland that a sequel was never made due to an alleged disagreement between Ferrell and Favreau.
"We were gonna do it," Caan said of the sequel, "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.'"
However, "the director and Will didn't get along very well," Caan said. "Will wanted to do it, and he didn't want the director, and [Favreau] had it in his contract. It was one of those things."
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