Netflix series unwraps the stories behind holiday movie classics
Looking back on it now, it is hard to believe that anyone thought having Will Ferrell play the world's biggest, sweetest elf was anything but a stroke of candy-coated genius. Or that anyone but Danny Elfman could provide the singular singing voice for Jack Skellington in "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Or that "Elf" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" were not destined to become modern holiday movie classics.
But Scrooge has always lived large and loud in Hollywood, and one of the joys of Netflix's "The Holiday Movies That Made Us" documentary series is watching the grumps, doubters and penny-pinchers lose battle after battle to the kinds of misfits, newbies and outsiders who make movie magic happen.
Like Netflix's "The Movies That Made Us," this holiday spinoff from producer Brian Volk-Weiss tells the backstage stories of how beloved movies got made. Speaking of Scrooge, the debut "season" of the holiday version consists of just two episodes, one on the making of "Elf" and the other on Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas." But there are enough movie-geek nuggets in each 44-minute installment to remind you that stocking stuffers count as gifts, too.
If you are the kind of person who lives for casting trivia (Chris Farley as Buddy the Elf?), executive-suite blunders (Disney originally turned down Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" pitch?), and box office miracles (the low-budget, underdog "Elf" was a No. 1 hit by its second week!), this is the series for you. Through interviews with screenwriters, producers, directors and other behind-the-scenes VIPs — but not bigger-name players like Burton, Ferrell or "Elf" director Jon Favreau — each episode follows the film's path from the initial creative spark all the way to its big-screen debut and beyond. That path is rarely smooth, but it is almost always interesting.
Take "Elf." As explained by Phe Caplan, the series' relentlessly chipper narrator, "Elf" is a tale of "humble, innocent beginnings that, through perseverance, grew into one of the most surprising Christmas classics of all time!" She isn't wrong. The beginnings of "Elf" were, indeed, humble and innocent. Also potentially troublesome on the legal front. But more on that later.
The 2003 film got its start in the head of David Berenbaum, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia who loved Christmas and really, really loved Christmas movies. After moving to Los Angeles to pursue a screenwriting career, Berenbaum worked in a lingerie factory and binge-watched Christmas movies to make Southern California's 75-degree Decembers feel more Christmas-y.
One of his favorites was 1964's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the stop-motion animated classic narrated by Burl Ives. And as Berenbaum imagined what "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" would be like if the outsider of the story was not an odd-duck reindeer but a human man who grew up in Santa's workshop, "Elf" was born.
Well, that's when the script was born, anyway. As told by the film's merry band of totally inexperienced players (first-timer Berenbaum, producers Jon Berg and Todd Komarnicki, executive producer Cale Boyter), the journey of "Elf" was quite the bumpy sleigh ride.
In a tale that will sound familiar to even the most amateur showbiz scholar, bad ideas abounded. All of the studios passed on the script. No one thought having some doofy "Saturday Night Live" comedian play an oversize elf was a good idea. And at one unfortunate point, someone suggested that instead of being employed as one of Santa's helpers, the character ultimately played by Zooey Deschanel should be a streetwalker.
With some help from Vince Vaughn, Team "Elf" persuaded Favreau to direct, and all of the pieces eventually danced into place. But not before Ferrell got on co-star James Caan's last nerve, legal issues with the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" production company got very complicated, and the surprise success of Ferrell's R-rated frat comedy "Old School" almost ruined the humble and innocent "Elf" for good.
If you are not the kind of person who wants a front-row seat to script-revision dramas, studio meddlings and ego-related dust-ups, skip "The Holiday Movies That Made Us" and go directly to the movies themselves. You don't have to know that the majority of "Elf" was filmed in an abandoned mental institution to know that the movie is insanely funny. And in the case of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," the things you might want to know about the film are not the things the docu-series wants to spend much time telling you.
Like the original "Movies That Made Us," this holiday version is fast and quippy, with the narrator interrupting the interviewees and the interviewees interrupting one another in a way that aims for madcap but is often just maddening. That clown-car energy suits "Elf" and its cast of happy rookies just fine, but the beauty of 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is in the painstaking artistry. It is in Elfman's wickedly sharp ditties, Burton's cheerfully macabre vision, and the elegant stop-motion animation directed by Henry Selick, none of which are particularly well-served by the series' overcaffeinated sensibilities.
For a much more rewarding look into the heart of the artist, check out the second season of Netflix's "Song Exploder," in which host and creator Hrishikesh Hirway guides musicians through the meticulous, surprising and deeply illuminating process of explaining how they created one song. The new four-episode season — which debuted earlier this week — features songs by Dua Lipa, Nine Inch Nails, the Killers and Natalia Lafourcade. It's not seasonal, but it's a real gift.
"The Holiday Movies That Made Us" and "Song Exploder" are streaming on Netflix.