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The Real Reason Will Ferrell's Elf Almost Never Happened

Imagine a world where we never saw Buddy the Elf scarf down a plate of spaghetti topped with maple syrup, candy, and Pop Tarts. Well, that and so many other charming moments in the movie Elf came shockingly close to never entering the modern Christmas movie canon. Here's why the classic holiday film that launched Will Ferrell into a leading man and Jon Favreau into a blockbuster-caliber filmmaker almost never happened.

In a recent Netflix original series titled The Holiday Movies That Made Us, the team behind the holiday classic about a human who was raised by Santa's elves divulged how Elf almost got derailed due to legal troubles.

The writer of the film, David Berenbaum, and director Favreau were both inspired by the Rankin/Bass holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. They loved the look of the specials so much that they wanted it to inform the aesthetic of Elf, from the costumes to the use of actual stop motion animation.

But that inspiration led to a legal dispute that almost derailed the film. 

Elf's classic look caused legal drama and almost gave us a blue Buddy

Rusty Smith, the Production Designer on Elf, said the film's distributor, New Line Cinema, had a legal department that got "nervous that we had stolen too much from Rankin/Bass."

Some of Rankin and Bass' Rudolph costume designs were a direct model for those in Elf. If you look at the Elf Foreman from the 1964 animated special and compare his costume to Buddy's outfit, they are, indeed, strikingly similar. The crew thought they were already clear legally to go ahead with the designs, but soon there were lawyers everywhere on set. The legal team began interrogating the crew on where they got their ideas. Smith said a producer warned him that the film might not even be releasable.

To combat the legal drama, the production team came up with an idea. Instead of Buddy the Elf wearing his trademark green outfit, he would wear a blue one. If they couldn't clear the green costume, they would have to reshoot much of the film or digitally alter the color to blue. Luckily, none of that had to happen as the controversy quickly cleared up. The crew attributed this to "fast legal work" which cleared the production of any appearance of wrongdoing.

Of course, the film finished shooting and went on to become an instant holiday classic. It has since grossed over $220 million worldwide while launching Ferrell to bankable leading man status and cementing Favreau as a heavily sought after director who went on to lay the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man, and is currently killing it on Disney+ as creator of The Mandalorian.

And though we will likely never get an Elf sequel, we'll have always the 2003 Christmas classic to return to each year.