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

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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