It’s no accident Will Ferrell’s “Elf” swiftly became a holiday staple.
Director Jon Favreau’s 2003 comedy delivers everything we demand in a Christmas classic. One critical aspect of the film, though, doesn’t get enough attention.
The film’s Christmas magic starts with Ferrell, perfecting his man-child shtick in the ultimate setting – the Big Apple. That routine has grown tired of late, thanks to over exposure, his increasingly political mien and inferior comic vehicles. With “Elf,” though, it’s the perfect marriage between comic persona and screwball setup.d
Plus, Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf gobbling down cotton balls offers a master class in physical comedy. Watch it again if you doubt it.
The film’s signature laughs have aged gracefully, relying on character-driven yuks over meta-jokes and cheap gags. We’ll forgive the flatulent Elf bit early in the film, it’s a one-and-done.
The deep cast includes “Godfather” tough guy James Caan, scene stealer Artie Lange as a sweaty St. Nick and the underrated Mary Steenburgen.
It helps that “Elf” delivers a Santa’s bag full of killer quotes, from “You’re an angry elf!” to “You sit on a throne of lies!”
Yet the film’s soundtrack rarely jumps to people’s lips when the film returns each Christmas season. It’s a perfect assemblage of yuletide staples and throwback tracks, all anchored to a narrative that grows with every viewing.
The film’s creative team might have felt pressure to add contemporary music to the story, juicing the film’s box office potential with current hitmakers.
Listen to Destiny Child alum Beyonce cover “Santa Baby!”
Instead, Team “Elf” relied on music from a more innocent era, a second way to enhance Buddy’s naivete.
Louis Prima and Wingy Manone’s “Pennies from Heaven” kicks off Buddy’s New York arrival, a bouncy tune performed under a series of slapstick bits. It’s not a Christmas song by definition (it is by default now, though), but it gives Favreau the sonic backdrop on which to ladle on the “fish out of water” gags.
Tone is everything in a successful film, but it’s even more important for a movie hoping to join “A Christmas Story,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Christmas Vacation” as seasonal faves.
The brassy “Pennies from Heaven” establishes the upbeat mood from the opening note.
Ella Fitzgerald’s “Sleigh Ride” gets the seasonal juices flowing, but the musical highlight for many comes later. Buddy hears a woman singing within the bowels of Gimbels department store (actually a Vancouver mental hospital), and he seeks out the source of the music. It’s Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), his future love interest, gently singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the shower.
The naïve Buddy joins along, fulfilling the song’s male duet part. Ferrell is no Mel Torme, but he handles the task well enough. Deschanel is an accomplished vocalist, so she does the heavier lifting as well as the comic shock at Buddy’s invasion.
The sequence is triggering on two fronts to today’s woke crowd. The original song’s lyrics are too sexually aggressive, they cry, a problem “solved” by John Legend’s painful 2019 cover with Kelly Clarkson.
“It’s your body and your choice,” Legend warbles. Ugh.
The song’s organic tension jumps with Buddy’s inappropriate bathroom drop-in. The move is both completely in character and wildly innocent. In fact, those two factors help Jovie realize Buddy may be more than just a work colleague.
“Nutcracker Suite” does feature a more modern musician, Brian Setzer, but his instrumentals stick to a classic tone.
Leon Redbone, who does double duty as a Burl Ives’-esque snow man named Leon, contributes three tracks to the film. Redbone’s “Winter Wonderland” offers a throwback appeal tied to his Tin Pan Alley stylings.
Like Setzer, Redbone’s music hearkened back to another era, aggressively resisting modern tics. Favreau, the driving force behind Disney Plus’ “The Mandolorian,” knows how to modulate pop culture moments then … and now.
Redbone returns during the closing credits to join Deschanel on a second, more polished version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Quick note: The deeply private Redbone died last year at the age of 127, according to a statement released by his family. His actual age? 69.
Classic Christmas songs like Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” and “Winter Wonderland” round out the soundtrack.
Some pop culture classics endure thanks to pure excellence. “Seinfeld” will delight us for years, if not decades, thanks to precise writing and indelible performances. It helps that the show’s scribes avoided mentioning “current” movie releases when films entered the conversation.
A similar magic powers “Elf.” It doesn’t feel rooted to any specific time. We see few visual cues that it’s 2003, and the music continually blurs the sense of time and place.
Many films today work in current references or political asides for an extra laugh or nod to the “right” audiences. “Elf” avoided those pitfalls, and it wasn’t an accident.
Favreau, who helped shape Buddy’s child-like antics by watching his then-one-year old son, told Rolling Stone his “Elf” mission statement was nothing if not audacious – create the next holiday classic.
“Our goal, even then, was to make a movie that could be part of that pantheon,” Favreau said. “The fact that it’s in rotation is the highest honor that movie can have.”
Favreau noted on the film’s Blu-ray extras he assembled much of the soundtrack after hearing co-star Deschanel sing. He didn’t realize that was part of her skill set when she joined the project, and her voice, which he compared to Doris Day, helped mold the soundtrack that followed.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.