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Elf (film)

A man dressed like an elf stands between the letters "e" and "f".
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by David Berenbaum
Produced by
Cinematography Greg Gardiner
Edited by Dan Lebental
Music by John Debney
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Release date
  • November 7, 2003 (2003-11-07)
Running time
97 minutes[1]
Country United States[2]
Language English
Budget $33 million[1]
Box office $223.3 million [1]

Elf is a 2003 American Christmas comedy film directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay, Bob Newhart and Ed Asner. The film centers on Buddy, a human who was adopted and raised by Santa's elves. He learns about this and heads to New York City to meet his biological father while also spreading Christmas cheer in a world of cynics in the process.

Elf was released in the United States on November 7, 2003 by New Line Cinema to critical and commercial success, grossing $220 million worldwide against a $33 million budget. Ferrell's performance as Buddy the Elf was praised by audiences and critics alike, with many calling it one of his best performances. It inspired the 2010 Broadway musical Elf: The Musical and NBC's 2014 stop-motion animated television special Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas. It is often listed among the greatest Christmas films of all time.[3][4][5]


On Christmas Eve, a baby at an orphanage crawls into Santa's sack and is unwittingly taken back to the North Pole. Discovering the child at the workshop, the elves name him Buddy after the diaper's brand label and Papa Elf adopts and raises him. Buddy grows up at the North Pole, believing he is an elf and accepted by the elf community. Being human sized, Buddy cannot keep up with the workload and is demoted to toy testing. Soon, Buddy overhears that he is a human and Papa Elf explains that Buddy was born to Walter Hobbs and Susan Wells and given up for adoption. Susan subsequently died with Walter, now working as a children's book publisher at the Empire State Building in New York City, unaware of Buddy's existence. To Buddy's horror, Santa reveals that Walter is on the Naughty List due to his selfishness, but suggests Buddy could help redeem Walter.

Buddy travels to New York and finds Walter at work; even after mentioning Susan Wells, Walter misinterprets him as a Christmas-gram messenger and has him ejected. Inspired by a security guard's sarcastic remark, Buddy heads to a local Gimbels department store, where he is mistaken for an employee. At the store's North Pole, he meets Jovie, an unenthusiastic employee with whom he is instantly smitten. Hearing that Santa will be at the store the following day, Buddy redecorates the store overnight. When realizing that the Gimbels Santa is not the real Santa, Buddy unmasks him and causes a brawl in the store resulting in Buddy getting arrested.

Walter reluctantly bails Buddy out and takes him for a DNA test, confirming that Buddy is his biological son. The doctor convinces Walter to take Buddy home to meet his stepmother, Emily and half-brother, Michael. Walter and Michael are unnerved by Buddy's strange behavior; Emily insists that they care for him until he "recovers”. Michael eventually warms up to Buddy after they defeat a gang of bullies in a snowball fight and Michael encourages Buddy to ask Jovie on a date, which she accepts. During the date, the two fall in love.

Meanwhile, Walter's company is failing after their recent book bombs. Walter's boss, Fulton Greenway, expects Walter to have a new book ready by Christmas Eve. Desperate, Walter and his team secure a meeting with best-selling children's author Miles Finch. Buddy interrupts the meeting to boast of his love and mistakes Finch, who has dwarfism, for an elf. Buddy unintentionally insults Finch until he attacks him before abruptly leaving; Walter furiously snaps at Buddy and harshly disowns him. Heartbroken, Buddy writes an apology note for Walter, Emily, and Michael and roams the streets.

On Christmas Eve, after finding Finch's notebook full of ideas, Walter and his team scramble to create a book to pitch. As Walter prepares to pitch the book to Greenway, Michael, who found Buddy's note, arrives and informs Walter of Buddy's departure. Realizing he was wrong, Walter walks out with Michael to find Buddy.

Buddy sees Santa's sleigh crash in Central Park, attracting a large crowd. Buddy finds Santa, who explains that the sleigh's engine is lost and cannot fly without it due to the Christmas spirit shortage. Buddy finds the engine and reunites with Walter and Michael. Walter apologizes to Buddy and accepts him as his son. Buddy takes them to meet Santa who proves himself to Michael by showing him what he truly wanted for Christmas. Michael takes Santa's list and reads it in front of television news cameras gathered outside the park, proving that Santa Claus is real. The Central Park Rangers, who never forgave Santa for placing them on the Naughty List, chase the sleigh as Buddy tries reattaching the engine. Jovie leads the crowd and those watching on television, whom Buddy touched their lives, in singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to help raise enough Christmas spirit to fully power the sleigh without the engine.

That following Christmas, Buddy becomes a children's author as he wrote his first book about his life, which became a bestseller that allowed Walter to establish his own publishing company. Buddy has also married Jovie, bringing their newborn daughter Susie to visit Papa Elf.


Live action

  • Will Ferrell as Buddy Hobbs, aka "Buddy the Elf", an eccentric human who was raised by Santa's elves.
  • James Caan as Walter Hobbs, a children's book publisher and Buddy's biological father.
  • Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, an unenthusiastic worker at Gimbels and Buddy's love interest.
  • Mary Steenburgen as Emily Hobbs, Walter's wife, Michael's mother and Buddy's stepmother.
  • Daniel Tay as Michael Hobbs, Walter and Emily's son and Buddy's younger-half brother.
  • Bob Newhart as Papa Elf, Buddy's adoptive father.
  • Ed Asner as Santa Claus, who finds Buddy in his sack and gives him to Papa Elf to raise.
  • Faizon Love as Wanda, the manager of Gimbels and Jovie's boss.
  • Peter Dinklage as Miles Finch, a best-selling children's author who attacks Buddy for (mistakenly) calling him an elf.
  • Amy Sedaris as Deb, Walter Hobbs' secretary.
  • Michael Lerner as Fulton Greenway, Walter Hobbs' controlling and uncaring boss, the CEO of Greenway Press.
  • Andy Richter as Morris, a co-worker of Walter Hobbs.
  • Kyle Gass as Eugene Dupree, a co-worker of Walter Hobbs.
  • Artie Lange as the Fake Santa, a Mall Santa who Buddy gets into an altercation with due to him not being the real Santa Claus.
  • Jon Favreau as Dr. Ben Leonardo, the Hobbs family's pediatrician.
  • Matt Walsh as Eye Witness.
  • Peter Billingsley as Ming Ming (uncredited), the head elf in Santa's workshop.
  • Mark Acheson as a mailroom worker.
  • David Paul Grove as Pom Pom, an elf who Buddy faints on when he discovers he's a human.

Voice cast



David Berenbaum initially wrote the script in 1993, with Chris Farley and Jim Carrey being early candidates to play Buddy.[6][7][8][9] Berenbaum's screenplay underwent uncredited rewrites by Scot Armstrong,[10][11] Chris Henchy,[12] and the writing team of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell.[13][14][15] According to Favreau, the script was initially "much darker" and did not interest him, although he was interested in working with Ferrell's first post-SNL movie.[16] Asked to rewrite it, a turning point came when he realized he could make Buddy's world an homage to the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. This allowed him to conceive of a movie that could be PG rated as opposed to the original script, which he guessed would have been rated PG-13.[16]


Director Jon Favreau in 2014.

Principal photography began on December 2, 2002, and wrapped on March 7, 2003.[17] Filming took place in New York City, as well as in Vancouver and at Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam, British Columbia.[16][18]

The film makes heavy use of forced perspective to exaggerate the size of Buddy compared to all the other elves. Stop motion animation was employed for certain sequences.[16] CGI usage was kept to a minimum due to Favreau's own preference, something that he would later note he "had to fight very hard" for.[16]

Zooey Deschanel singing was not in the original script, and Favreau added it when he learned she was a singer.[16] When Buddy starts singing in the middle of Santaland at Gimbels, the lyrics were not scripted and Will Ferrell improvised the song on the spot.[19]


Apart from snow, most of the computer generated imagery (CGI) in the film was created by Rhythm & Hues Studios.[20] Buddy's belch after drinking a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola was real, although it was not an actual belch, but a vocal trick dubbed by voice actor Maurice LaMarche.[21]


Box office

Elf grossed $175 million in the United States and Canada, and $47 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $222 million, against a production budget of $33 million.[1]

The film opened at number two at the box office in the U.S. with $31.1 million, finishing behind The Matrix Revolutions, also in its first week.[22] It topped the box office on its second week of release, beating out Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. In the United Kingdom, it opened in second behind Love Actually.[23]

Critical response

On Rotten Tomatoes, Elf holds an approval rating of 84% based on 194 reviews, and an average rating of 7.05/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "A movie full of Yuletide cheer, Elf is a spirited, good-natured family comedy, and it benefits greatly from Will Ferrell's funny and charming performance as one of Santa's biggest helpers."[24] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 64 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[25] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale.[26]

Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars, calling it "one of those rare Christmas comedies that has a heart, a brain and a wicked sense of humor, and it charms the socks right off the mantelpiece."[27] Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers gave the film two out of four stars, saying: "Ferrell makes the damn thing work. Even though he can't get naked or use naughty words, there's a devil of comedy in Ferrell, and he lets it out to play. Director Jon Favreau has the good sense to just stand out of his way."[28] The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a positive review, saying: "While the words "instant holiday classic" might be pushing it, Elf is at the very least a breezily entertaining, perfectly cast family treat."[29] A. O. Scott of The New York Times also gave the film a positive review, saying: "Elf is a charming, silly family Christmas movie more likely to spread real joy than migraine, indigestion and sugar shock. The movie succeeds because it at once restrains its sticky, gooey good cheer and wildly overdoes it."[30] Anna Smith of Empire magazine gave the film a three out of five stars and said: "Ferrell's man-child invites sympathy and sniggers, making this amusing despite some flimsy plotting. Sight gags and a Santa-centered story should keep the kids happy too."[31] Plugged In gave the film a positive review, writing: "The elf-reared Buddy has a heart as big as the arctic north. Does his movie match it?"[32]


The film was nominated for nine awards and won two.[33]


  • 2004 ASCAP award – Top Box Office Films (John Debney)
  • 2004 Golden Trailer – Best Comedy


  • 2004 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Award – Favorite Movie
  • 2004 MTV Movie Award – Best Comedic Performance (Will Ferrell)
  • 2004 PFCS Award – Best Live Action Family Film and Best Use of Previously Published or Recorded Music
  • 2004 Teen Choice Award – Choice Movie Actor – Comedy (Will Ferrell) and Choice Movie – Comedy
  • 2005 Golden Satellite Award – Best Youth DVD

Critics' rankings

Elf is often ranked among the greatest Christmas films,[34][35][36][37] and airs annually on television during the holiday season. In 2017, Fandango users rated Elf the best Christmas film of the 21st century.[38]

Home media

The film was released on DVD and VHS on November 16, 2004, and on Blu-ray on October 28, 2008. It is also available for the PlayStation Portable with Universal Media Disc. This is one of the only two DVDs to be PG rated under the Infinifilm label.


A Broadway musical based upon the film ran on Broadway during the 2010 Christmas season. It was directed by Casey Nicholaw, with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan.

The musical officially opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on November 10, 2010, after previews from November 2, 2010. The cast included Sebastian Arcelus as Buddy, Amy Spanger as Jovie, Beth Leavel as Emily, Mark Jacoby as Walter, Matthew Gumley as Michael, Valerie Wright as Deb, Michael McCormick as Mr. Greenway, Michael Mandell as Store Manager, and George Wendt as Santa. It ran through to January 2, 2011.[51]


The soundtrack was released on New Line Records in November 2003 in the United States[52] and in October 2005 in the United Kingdom, including its signature song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Deschanel and Leon Redbone, releasing it as a single.[53] It was certified Gold by the RIAA in April 2011.[54] Having sold 695,000 copies in the United States, it is the second-highest selling soundtrack album for a Christmas-themed film since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking music sales in 1991, behind only The Polar Express.[55]

  1. "Pennies from Heaven" – Louis Prima
  2. "Sleigh Ride" – Ella Fitzgerald and the Frank De Vol Orchestra
  3. "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" – Lena Horne
  4. "Sleigh Ride/Santa Claus' Party" – Ferrante and Teicher/Les Baxter
  5. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" – Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel
  6. "Jingle Bells" – Jim Reeves
  7. "The Nutcracker Suite" – Brian Setzer
  8. "Christmas Island" – Leon Redbone
  9. "Santa Baby" – Eartha Kitt and the Henri René Orchestra
  10. "Winter Wonderland" – Ray Charles
  11. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" – Eddy Arnold
  12. "Nothing from Nothing" – Billy Preston

The score to the film, composed and conducted by John Debney and performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, was released by Varèse Sarabande.[56]

Animated special

Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas is an hour-long stop-motion animated musical television special based on the film and the musical of the same name. While Edward Asner was the only cast member from the film to reprise his role, the rest of the cast included Jim Parsons as Buddy, Mark Hamill as Walter Hobbs, Kate Micucci as Jovie, Rachael MacFarlane as Emily Hobbs, Max Charles as Michael Hobbs, and Gilbert Gottfried as Mr. Greenway. It was produced by Warner Bros. Animation and first aired on NBC on December 16, 2014. It features songs from the musical.

Video game

A video game based on the film was released on November 4, 2004 for the Game Boy Advance, developed by Human Soft and published by Crave Entertainment.[57][58] The game follows the same plot as the movie; within the game, the player has to collect candies throughout each level while avoiding various objects and polar bears. The game received mixed to positive reviews by critics.[57]

Cancelled sequel

On September 18, 2013, Mental Floss reported that Favreau was interested in making a sequel to the film, entitled Elf 2: Buddy Saves Christmas.[59] Later in December 2013, Ferrell stated that he does not want to make a sequel.[60] In January 2016, Favreau stated that a sequel could still happen.[61] The next month, Ferrell reiterated that a sequel was unlikely, and stated that he was generally reluctant to do sequels unless there was a story that justifies it.[62] On September 18, 2020, James Caan reaffirmed that a sequel was unlikely, stating that Ferrell and Favreau didn't get along.[63]


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External links