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The Adventures of Elmo In Grouchland

Boo, get off the stage!

D. W. McKim (10-7-99) - Like most people, I had quite a few preconceived notions as what to expect. Elmo, in his overexposure, has become a favorite of kids and a cue for adults to have their aspirin handy. After the ubiquity of Tickle Me Elmo, we've seen Elmopalooza and Elmo Saves Christmas, and had 15 minutes of Sesame Street held hostage by Elmo's World. Now 15 years after the first Sesame Street movie comes "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland". Can you handle ninety minutes of Elmo, on a larger than life screen? That high pitched voice in THX? One would think a wise man would be placing stock in pain relief products. Now quite honestly, I did use to love Elmo up until about seven years ago. The kid was delightful as a supporting character and his enthusiasm for life coupled with Kevin Clash’s energy made me actually look forward to his time on the screen. Then all at once, the producers started relying on the monster too heavily just as Kevin's Elmo voice became more forced and the character even regressed! (I could swear that this three-year-old actually began as being age five!) He was becoming annoying even before the Tickle Me craze.

Yet here was a film that would be pitting him against the Grouches - the anti-Elmo's – a possibility that the saccharine might be neutralized by the sour. Another positive sign was that even though the first Sesame movie starred Big Bird, all the other characters received satisfactory screen time; it was a Sesame Street movie, not a Big Bird movie. A further clue that Grouchland would take the same approach could be found in Elmopalooza – though the titular star of the special, all the Muppets were featured adequately and the special was co-written by Joseph Mazzarino who would also be among the film's authors.

The theatrical trailer dampened my enthusiasm. It made the film seem like nothing but Elmo running around for an hour and a half screaming "BLANKET!" I was comforted by the press releases and behind the scenes information detailing how the movie came about and what the filmmakers were looking to accomplish. I felt reassured and actually anxious to see the final product. That is until I saw the initial reviews mentioning that the characters encourage the kiddies in the audience to do their own version of "Rocky Horror" and even mix kids' voices doing what the Muppets suggest in the soundtrack. Great, Big Bag - The Movie!

As you can tell though from my Kermit Rating, the film thankfully far exceeded any expectations I may have had. This is a classic movie! Not just a classic Muppet movie, mind you - but a classic movie PERIOD. Elmo follows that bird and makes that first fantastic outing seem like a turkey. A lot of love went into this film and it's obvious that the creative team knew of all the obstacles they were up against. They were able to produce the seemingly impossible: a show that keeps all age groups thoroughly entertained, a kids' film that's sweet, energetic, and fun without being wimpy or numbing - everything Sesame the show was always supposed to be and Elmo's World is not. They well knew the attention spans and tolerance levels of both the children and their older relatives, resulting in a film that the kids will want to see again with the rest of the family willing to sit through a repeat viewing. And it even does it all in just 77 minutes! It's clear why Elmo in Grouchland won the Film Advisory Board's Award of Excellence.

A huge reason for the film's success is its soundtrack. The songs are a lot of fun from the laundromat jam to guest villain Mandy Patenkin's wonderfully wild production number. Part of the reason the songs work so well is due to the energetic visuals of director Gary Halverson who keeps things moving and commands the audience's continual attention filling the screen with a lively show. To those who recognize Halverson's main Muppet credit as a director of Muppets Tonight may be surprised given how musically challenged the series had been – one can only imagine the lavish Miss Piggy production numbers the show could have presented had Halverson been allowed such reign. Yet even without the spectacle, the songs are strong enough on their own, being well-written, clever, and never schmaltzy when trying to be sweet - the Disney creative staff could learn a lot here!

Another impressive element worth noting is the sets. Like Follow That Bird, the street was realized on a grand scale in a movie studio allowing it more realism but not compromising its trademark look or feel. Sesame Street still looks fabulous in Elmo, and we even get some peeks at the Behind the Corner settings that were done away with in the show this season. Grouchland itself is a marvel, grouchy and yucky enough for its residents but colorful and not so scary for the kids. But the real tour-du-force is the inside of Oscar's can - the big mystery we've all wanted to have a look at and the idea that spawned the movie's concept. We don't see it that long - this is after all an existential puzzle that the directors didn't want to completely spoil so viewers are only given a quick glimpse before quickly shuttling Elmo off to Grouchland. But what is shown is incredible and well worth the eventual video release just to freeze frame this scene and absorb all the details - we see clues as to all the things we hear about... even a hallway leading to the infamous swimming pool!

Even those that found great pleasure in doing naughty things to the youngsters' Elmo dolls will find themselves enthralled. Even though the film doesn't mix the other characters in as well as Follow That Bird, this is still a Sesame Street film – it may help to think of the production as a Grouchland movie, not an Elmo movie. It simply makes sense that of all the characters to end up in Grouchland that it be Elmo. His willingness to see the best in others and his enthusiasm keep him from being frightened out of his fur like most unwilling tourists may be if they knew better. Once Elmo arrives, he's welcomed with a song - even though he witnesses cars going through mud washes and receives a bouquet of decapitated flowers, he gets into the song and enjoys himself which is the beauty of childhood innocence. Elmo makes a nice foil to Grouchland and vice. He even often comes across as the delightful character he had been when he was originally developed. The writers know how long to extend a scene before switching to another character; no one gets tired of anyone because it's all so well balanced. Nonetheless even though we get such wonderful Sesame-isms as Waiter and Super Grover, it still seems odd to have a film featuring grouches that has not even a walk-on cameo from Slimey or Grundghetta or even any kind of Kermit cameo.

Ernie and Bert fans (and aren't we all?) will be happy as the pair serve as the hosts, interrupting the film when the kids may be getting concerned about something. Yes, they encourage kids to interact with the screen and yes we do hear kids voices in the soundtrack, but this is done minimally and with the moderation in which it's accomplished actually ends up being a cute idea and not a bad Barney flashback. (Though that's not an affirmation that I'd like to see this continue in future films!) Ernie and Bert are as terrifically hysterical as ever, providing relief not just to potentially scared tots but to the grown-ups as well with lines directed at them (it's during one of these exchanges that the film's funniest line occurs).

All throughout the film, the writers reassure the adults as much as they do the kids with several winks at self-referentialism. Characters voice things that big brother and sister are probably thinking and in doing so let them know that we're aware of you too and want you to relax and have fun. As Huxley, Patenkin addresses his unwelcome guests with "I suppose you all sit around saying the alphabet all day." His Pesties comment and make jokes about the huge bushy eyebrows Mandy gets stuck with ("those aren't eyebrows, they're my aunt and uncle"). He refers to his helicopter as his "cartoonishly fiendish vehicle". Above all else, you have got to appreciate the irony of an actress that once had to surrender the Miss America title in scandal as being cast as the Queen of Trash!

This is a must see for any Muppet fan. The film offers the company's talents at its best. From high production values to high spirited songs. From a hilarious Dave Goelz role as a giant chicken (Goelz doesn't contribute much to Sesame but when he does it's something special) to the best puppets made from trash since Fraggle Rock's Marjorie. What could easily have been the film we've all been dreading has become the one we've all been waiting for. Hopefully the show itself will benefit from Clash's rediscovery of what makes Elmo such a great character when he wants to be.

Quinn Rollins (10-11-99) - I was apprehensive going into the film, being a lifelong fan of Sesame Street, but only a moderate fan of Elmo. I was afraid the film would be completely Elmo, and that the classic family of characters would be neglected. I didn't have to worry. The classic characters were well represented, and the movie involved them as much as it did Elmo.

At our theatre, it began with a 4 minute "History of Film" presented by Cookie Monster, starting with silent pictures  (Grover and Buster the Horse), moving on through talkies, musicals, and special effects. This was a funny, fine demonstration of the last 94 years of film history. Better than the AFI's top 100 list, and over with in 4 minutes. Once the movie starts, we see plenty of Bert, Ernie, Grover, Waiter Grover, Super Grover, Big Bird, Oscar, Telly, Zoe, Cookie Monster, and all the rest. I could have personally used more Count, Snuffy, and Prairie, but the characters which were there were so good and so tightly written and performed that I wasn't counting heads, I was just enjoying the movie. The human characters were also well represented, with Gordon and Maria being key to the storyline, and Gina, Bob, Susan, Luis and Ruthie having cameos.

The set designs for the film were colorful and imaginative, coming from the same people who designed the sets for "A Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island" - storybook settings for a tale bigger than the usual Sesame Street fare. I was VERY glad to see Hooper's Store with the yellow-and-black checks and the awning - a part of the SS set I wish they'd bring back... the rest of the Street looked a little different, but you know you're on Sesame Street. You don't see much of the inside of Oscar's Can, but you do see it - it's just as I had expected it - they keep it mysterious, don't worry. The Grouchland scenes were packed full of inside jokes that adults would catch, but my niece and nephew (ages 2 and 4) didn't. I won't spoil any of the jokes by repeating them here, but there was plenty that the adults in the audience were laughing at.

Kevin Clash gave a wonderful performance as Elmo, who was kept in small doses scattered throughout the film instead of long blocks of hyperactivity, which would have grated on my nerves. As it was, Elmo had a great story to follow and I was rooting for him as much as the children in the audience were. There are several places in the film where Elmo stops and addresses the audience, and asks for our help - sometimes it worked really well, and other times it didn't.

Another thing that worked semi-well was the musical numbers. Mandy Patinkin did a fine job as Huxley, but his song (which was sung well), just didn't move me or the audience, or Patinkin himself. His character didn't seem moved to sing. It was just a song that was written in there, so he sang it. Vanessa Williams was great as the Queen of Trash, and also sang well, but the staging of her song was so static that the pups in the audience were bored after the first verse. She just stands there and gyrates a little and sings. Fine for me, but the pups started bugging me for more popcorn.

The Muppet numbers were better and more memorable, my favorite being the Stomp-esque percussion number in the laundromat. I already bought the soundtrack, but haven't listened to it yet. I hope that number is on it. The new Muppets we meet in Grouchland are all performed well, the most memorable being Bug, Huxley's henchman. Well performed and well thought out, a fine sympathetic character who I wouldn't mind seeing on the Street. Grizzie, Elmo's new friend is really a background character who isn't developed much, but I really don't mind, because she's more a catalyst to the story than a major player in it.

I really only have two complaints about the movie, and they're both very minor, not even complaints, more comments about it.

1) Even though I wasn't counting heads, and I know there are many characters you don't see in the film, I would have liked to seen Kermit as a reporter in it. Maybe just interviewing someone about Elmo's disappearance, or helping search for the blanket. Not a big deal, I just kind of missed the frog.

2) The whole concept of the film (Elmo searching for his blanket) is a convenient contrivance, something thought up that doesn't have much to do with the character, and won't affect the character in the future. If it had been Ernie looking for Rubber Duckie, or Big Bird and Radar, or Bert and Bernice, it would have made more sense. But Elmo has never had an attachment to the blanket before, why would he start now? That's just a picky thing, but it was just out of character to suddenly have a blanket fetish. However, it set things in motion for a great movie - lots of humor, adventure, and fun, and I give it my highest recommendation.

Cindy Chapman (10-13-99) - Well, he may not be a favorite among the adult population. But ask any three-year-old and I bet he can tell you who their favorite little red monster is. That’s right, Elmo is bigger than ever. In fact, he’s so big, he’s found his way to the big screen. Elmo is the star of his first feature film, "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland".

The one and only perpetual three and a half year old Muppet is joined by some of his friends from the street for a fast paced adventure. Elmo finds himself in one giant sized dilemma that any child can identify with. When Elmo looses the one thing that is most precious to him, his blanket, he becomes one stubborn little monster. Elmo goes to just about any extent to get his blanket back. From singing with garbage, taking the ultimate test, to escaping the villainous plotting of Mandy Patinkin, Elmo proves that he’ll never let anything come in between him and his blanket.

The film starts out in Elmo’s bedroom where he shows us just exactly why he loves his blanket so much. A brief portion of the film actually takes place on the street. And this is where we find a lot of the classic Muppet characters, Big Bird, Telly Monster, Cookie Monster, The Count and even Super Grover makes a heroic appearance. One memorable scene includes Fat Blue and Grover teaming up for a truly laughable moment.

The movie centers upon audience participation. Elmo relies on his "real live" fans to guide him throughout his adventure. This Peterpan-Tinkerbell approach gives the little viewers (or not so little) a chance to interact and become a part of the movie. Comic relief from Bert and Ernie is scattered throughout the film, much to the delight of the adult audience.

Mandy Patinkin and Vanessa Williams star as the only two human characters that live away from the street. Patinkin reveals his villainous ways as Mr. Huxley. He loves to take things that don’t belong to him. As well, he could take out a small country with those eyebrows. And what villain would be complete without a cute little sidekick? Bug is Mr. Huxley’s personal assistant who turns out to be more cute than villainous.

And just a final note about Elmo in Grouchland… musically speaking, Steve Whitmire, who performs Stuckweed, deserves one green thumbs up for his "Take the First Step" number. Performances by Vanessa Williams, the residents of Grouchland, and even little Elmo helps to keep your toes tapping. "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" proved to be a very enjoyable film.

Even though the movie mainly took place off the Street, the new scenery was very colorful and playful. Elmo was delivered in small doses, which helped to make the film not too sweet. The overall message was very positive and refreshing. I was only disappointed in how little our "classic" Muppets appeared. However, I’m more relieved to know that Sesame Street is continuing to evolve and change with the times. That just means that this generation and future generations will be able to enjoy and learn from Sesame Street just like I did when I was a little girl.

But don’t just take my word for it....

"That was a cool movie!"
                               
- Gray and Chase DeLozier (ages 5 and 3)

 
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