Elf: How Zooey Deschanel’s Singing Changed the Movie for the Better

Without the casting of Zooey Deschanel and her husky vocal range, Elf might never have discovered the best way to spread Christmas cheer….

Zooey Deschanel in Elf
Photo: New Line Cinema / WB

Twenty years later, it’s fair to argue that Elf is the last great Christmas movie. This Jon Favreau classic, which also marked a significant turning point in Will Ferrell’s career, came out during a holiday season that was awash in memorable Yuletide flicks, with adult-skewing audiences getting to spike their eggnog via Love Actually and Bad Santa. Yet in addition to being the only one of those three films that was suitable for the whole family, Elf has also aged the best. The movie, is in fact, magic.

There are more than a few reasons why Elf works as well as it does. Favreau’s choice to use intentionally antiquated stop-motion effects in the North Pole sequences, and therefore echo his own childhood memories of watching TV specials like Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), still charms. Whereas many other big budget Santa movies of the 1990s and 2000s embraced then-cutting edge CG effects, Elf looks as timeless today as it did in 2003 (if you ignore all those square television sets).

There is also the Ferrell of it all. While screenwriter David Berenbaum lit upon the idea of a movie about a grown man raised by elves way back in the early ‘90s, with his first draft of the script dated to 1993, various studio executives considered plenty of other comedians during that decade. Jim Carrey and Chris Farley are just two stars who circled Buddy the Elf. And neither likely would have brought Ferrell’s bubbly effervescence to the role.

Still, it can be easy to forget Ferrell wasn’t the only breakthrough in Elf. It was the casting of a relatively unknown singer and actress that would instill Elf with its greatest lesson. Without Zooey Deschanel, Elf might never have coalesced around the epiphany that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

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Zooey Deschanel Brought the Music

Deschanel was not the first choice for the role of Jovie, the young woman whom Buddy meets at a department store and mistakes for a “fellow enthusiast of elf culture.” At the time, the actress was probably best known for playing Cameron Crowe’s older sister in the semi-autobiographical Almost Famous (2000), and was new enough to the industry that she did not even quite understand how singing on-screen worked (when it came time to film the famous duet in Elf, she initially thought it would be done live in the bathroom set). Nonetheless, when the actor that Favreau first wanted for Jovie dropped out at the last minute, he needed a new performer with a new special talent.

“I remember Jon Favreau telling me that they were catering it to whoever played the part,” Deschanel told EW about building the Jovie character in 2020. “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.”

By coming aboard late into the pre-production process, Deschanel caused the filmmakers to reconsider the musicality of Christmas festivities, and perhaps figure out just why this woman trying to make ends meet at a shopping mall would fall for a guy in yellow tights. As written in the original Berenbaum draft, Jovie is a much more passive and blandly affectionate character, reminiscent of a lot of love interest roles written for women in comedies between the 1980s and 2000s. While the finished film’s Jovie still might fall for Buddy pretty easily, the character has a droll detachment that, along with her singing voice, Deschanel brought to the part. She also has the good sense to be weirded out by Buddy in a scene written specifically for her.

You know the moment. Hearing the sounds of festive singing emanating from the department store’s employees bathroom, Buddy wanders in to listen to Jovie sing the old holiday standard, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” In Favreau’s mind, Deschanel had a Doris Day like purity of voice, plus a husky emphasis on low vocals, and by using this Christmas duet, Elf lands on a comedy knife’s edge. This scene would likely have come across as disturbing with almost any other pair of characters, but the way Elf plays it is charmingly daffy.

Favreau confirmed this sequence, and much of Jovie’s slightly jaded characterization, was written specifically for Deschanel when he did the DVD commentary for Elf back in 2003.

“We added a lot of the music, like ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside,’ after I heard Zooey’s voice,” Favreau said. “She was a singer and she’s in a cabaret band and has very classic, old-fashioned looks. She almost looks like a silent movie star… but also very real and quirky and dry.” Favreau went on to point out that most of the folks he cast in Elf, from Ed Asner as Santa to Bob Newhart as Papa Elf, underplayed their lines.

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“They tend to be drier performers as opposed to broad performers,” Favreau added. “I really like that delivery of comedy. I really like when people sort of throw it away.”

For the record, in Berenbaum’s original 1993 draft of Elf, the character of Jovie is introduced in the department store as being an out of work cabaret singer. However, the film went through many rewrites before Favreau—as well as Ferrell and the film’s final uncredited screenwriter, Adam McKay—came aboard. Also in that original draft, Jovie never really sings. Buddy attends one of her shows in a montage where he is writing to both his elfin parents in the North Pole, but as scripted, this is background information that’s used simply to set up Jovie has a scuzzy ex-boyfriend who once was in her band and is now trying to win her back by competing with Buddy.

There is no real singing and no real Christmas cheer epiphanies because that too came in the eleventh hour after Favreau heard Deschanel sing.

A Musical Finale

In the original draft of Elf, the film does not end with the citizens of New York coming together to help Santa, by singing or otherwise. There is still an elaborate climax in Central Park, although it is a little less amusing than the fictional “Central Park Rangers” chasing Santa on horseback. Instead the script has NYPD cruisers, complete with drawn guns, trying to take down Santa’s sleigh and its reindeer. One by one, all of Buddy’s new family and friends, including his estranged human father Walter, his half-brother Michael, and finally Jovie, end up on Santa’s sleigh by way of happenstance and crazy cab drivers. But they’re mostly here to see Santa is real and tell Buddy they were wrong about him.

The finished film has only Buddy ride along in the Big Man’s sleigh. Meanwhile Jovie, the woman who Buddy annoyed by insisting she must sing loud and clear for all to hear, gets up in front of a crowd on Central Park South and starts belting “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” And, eventually, others join in. Together, the power of these strangers singing can just barely make Santa’s sleigh fly—if only after James Caan’s Scroogey Walter finally agrees to throw in a few bars.

According to Favreau, these were all bits he requested to be added to the script after Deschanel came aboard. In a 2020 interview with Rolling Stone, the director said, “The whole Christmas spirit, saving Christmas, that was pretty late in the game too. That wasn’t in the original script. It gave it the magical feeling, that spirit-redeeming, Buddy changing a lot of people in small ways and overall changing the personality of the city. That’s something I think gives the movie heart.”

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Indeed, one of the most magical things about Elf is that by casting drier performers like Deschanel and Caan, the movie cultivates a certain jadedness that frankly feels more authentically adult than a lot of Santa Claus movies. So seeing these folks won over by Buddy and Christmas at the end gives the film a sense of holiday renewal and exuberance. In fact, the final bit where the characters sing was even partially reshot to add to the tension, with Favreau getting Mary Steenburgen to re-film her assist to Jovie. In the reshoot, Steenburgen’s character has her voice crack as she shouts, “He sees you when you’re sleeping.”

Favreau said in the commentary, “We shot it during the first two weeks in New York [the rest of the movie was filmed in British Columbia]. And later, as we started to cut the movie together, I realized it was more of a dramatic moment, so I asked Mary to come outside—we were doing another scene—so she got dressed and came outside and we got it shot.”

This occurred because as they were making Elf, they were still figuring out how to thread the last-minute idea that only through song can Buddy and New York save Christmas. “We found a way to sort of layer this stuff in without making it too obvious,” Favreau said in 2003. The result is a movie that relies less on special effects or chase scenes—or Buddy shooting paintballs at coppers—and more on the very idea of the Spirit of Christmas, and kindness, and charity, being at the bedrock of Buddy’s character and effect on those around him.

It gave Elf its final splash of fairy dust. And according to Deschanel, it also brought “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” back into the mainstream, with the dated ‘50s standard suddenly being on every 21st century artist’s new Christmas album (much to some corners of the internet’s frustration).

Twenty years later, we can still hear Elf, loud and clear.