Release Date(s)2003 (November 1, 2022)
Studio(s)New Line Cinema/Guy Walks Into a Bar (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Long before he launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man and helped to rejuvenate the Star Wars franchise via The Mandalorian, actor-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau gave movie fans their first hint of his talent behind the camera when he was hired by New Line to direct an unlikely Christmas comedy. Conceived as an homage to the classic Rankin/Bass holiday specials, Elf is the story of an orphaned human child who unwitting crawls into Santa’s toy bag one Christmas Eve and ends up back at the North Pole. Once there, he’s soon adopted by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), raised as one of the elves, and eventually grows into a fine young man named Buddy (Will Ferrell).
But try as he might, Buddy is a poor fit in Santa’s Workshop. For one thing, he’s twice the size of an elf, and he can’t keep up with their toy-making quotas. So when Buddy learns he was adopted, he sets out to find his surviving birth parent, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a jaded children’s book publisher in New York City. Unfortunately, Walter isn’t exactly thrilled to see Buddy—who he thinks is just a rando nut job in an elf costume—though his wife and younger son are more receptive. And Buddy is ill-prepared for the mean streets of NYC, until he stumbles upon “Santaland” at the Gimbels department store. It’s there that he falls for a jaded holiday helper named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and finally discovers his purpose: To bring the true Christmas spirit to back to the world.
Elf came out of left field upon its theatrical release back in 2003, but it quickly became obvious that the film was a gem. Its casting is inspired, starting with Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel—who’s quirky as ever here, though she has surprising chemistry with Ferrell—but particularly veteran cast members Bob Newhart, James Caan (exactly the hyper-masculine, uncomfortable with emotions actor you’d want to play Walter), Mary Steenburgen (as Walter’s wife Emily), and Ed Asner (as Santa Claus). Once you’ve seen the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in these roles. The supporting cast delivers too, including Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Amy Sedaris (Strangers with Candy), Andy Richter (longtime Conan O’Brien sidekick), Kyle Gass (of Tenacious D), and Peter Billingsley (A Christmas Story). In a clever nod to those aforementioned Rankin/Bass specials, the Chiodo Brothers (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) were hired to create stop-motion titles and characters for the film, one of which is voiced by singer Leon Redbone and another by stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen. The film also cleverly employs old-school techniques to create effects shots in-camera, including forced perspective. (Director Peter Jackson had used a similar approach on New Line’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring just a couple years later.) But ultimately, Elf works because of its smart screenplay and deft direction, both of which lend the film plenty of heart to go with its laughs.
Elf was shot on 35 mm film by cinematographer Greg Gardiner (Men in Black II) using Panavision Panaflex Platinum cameras with Panavision Primo spherical lenses. Digital VFX shots were likely completed in 2K resolution and printed back out to interpositive film. The project was then finished photochemically at the 1.85:1 “flat" aspect ratio. For its release on Ultra HD, Warner has completed a new 4K scan of the original camera negative and interpositive effects elements, and added a bit of digital remastering as well as a High Dynamic Range grade (available here in HDR10 only). The result, frankly, is spectacular. Compared to the 2008 Blu-ray edition, there’s both greatly improved resolution and far more refined detail, readily apparent in skin textures, costume fabrics, and on the wood timbers of Santa’s workshop. Colors are richly saturated, with far greater nuance and naturalism. Shadows are deep and detailed, while highlights are bold enough to benefit New York City streets and festive Christmas lighting. VFX shots and titles exhibit a modest and expected drop in detail, yet still blend nicely with the OCN footage. Very light photochemical grain remains visible (though it’s much less coarse and noisy than it appeared on Blu-ray), rendering a pleasing cinematic image. All in all, it’s safe to say that Elf has never looked this good on disc before.
The 4K disc includes its primary English audio in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format. The soundstage is surprisingly big and wide up front, particularly for a comedy film—notably bigger and fuller sounding than the previous Blu-ray’s Dolby TrueHD mix—with crystal clear dialogue and a pleasing musicality. Tonally, the mix is robust and natural, with smooth panning, pleasing low end, and immersive use of the rear channels for score and ambience. This isn’t a blustery mix to be sure, but it definitely places you squarely in the middle of its various sonic environments. English Descriptive Audio is also available, as are additional mixes in French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Optional subtitles are included in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, and Spanish.
Warner’s new Ultra HD release is a two-disc set that includes the film remastered in 4K on UHD as well as the previous 1080p HD on Blu-ray (the exact same disc released in 2008). Both discs including the following special features, carried over from previous releases:
- Audio Commentary by Jon Favreau
- Audio Commentary by Will Farrell
To this, the Blu-ray adds the following additional legacy special features:
- Fact Track (Subtitle Trivia Option)
- Focus Points (Interactive Viewing Option)
- Tag Along with Will Ferrell (SD – 7:02)
- Film School for Kids (SD – 20:38)
- How They Made the North Pole (SD – 11:31)
- Lights, Camera, Puffin! (SD – 6:37)
- That’s a Wrap… (SD – 12:13)
- Kids on Christmas (SD – 6:32)
- Deck the Halls (SD – 10:26)
- Santa Mania (SD – 6:30)
- Christmas in Tinseltown (SD – 6:51)
- Additional Scenes with Optional Commentary by Jon Favreau (SD – 11 scenes – 11:26 in all)
- Hockey (SD – 1:27)
- Buddy Talks with Papa (SD – 1:45)
- Walter and the Nun (SD – 1:49)
- Papa Tells Buddy the Truth (SD – 1:20)
- Buddy and Leon (SD – 1:08)
- Walter and Emily (SD – :45)
- Extended Tuck-In (SD – 2:01)
- Extended Miles Finch Fight (SD – 1:12)
- Elf Karaoke (SD – 3 songs – 4:36 in all)
- We Wish You a Merry Christmas (SD – 1:27)
- Deck the Halls (SD – 1:37)
- Jingle Bells (SD – 1:32)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:30)
Most of these extras were created for New Line’s original Infinifilm DVD release back in 2004. The commentaries are both very entertaining and well worth your time. About half of the video-based material is focused on the actual production of this film, while the rest is just holiday-themed fluff. The highlight of the film-related content is definitely Lights, Camera, Puffin!, which offers a look at the stop-motion work of the Chiodo Brothers. The deleted scenes are good too—there’s a couple of genuinely funny moments in there. And the Focus Points and Fact Track options are worth experiencing at least once as well. As one would expect with any major studio 4K release these days, a Movies Anywhere Digital code is also included on a paper insert in the packaging.
Elf is a modern holiday classic that works even apart from its Christmas theme. It’s a great comedy that never fails to leave a smile on your face. And from an A/V standpoint, Warner’s new 4K Ultra HD is a winner, featuring best-ever image quality that should please even the pickiest fan. Bottom line: If you love Elf, this is a $24 upgrade that’s easy to justify. Put this title in your Christmas stocking and you won’t regret it.
- Bill Hunt