Rated G - Running Time: 1:13 - Released 10/1/99

After the explosion of his "Tickle Me" toy a few Christmases ago, Elmo has become one of the most popular of Jim Henson's muppet characters on Sesame Street. With his high, whiny voice and his comparatively low level of comedic sophistication (compared, that is, to his Street cohorts), he is perhaps the character most difficult to stomach for us grownups. I suppose it was inevitable, though, that the little red furball would eventually get his own movie. Written by Mitchell Kriegman and directed by Gary Halvorson (both making their first jump from TV to the big screen), Elmo In Grouchland does not feature the muppets we are used to seeing in other Henson Productions. Instead of Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Miss Piggy, in this film we have the regulars from the Sesame Street cast: Elmo, Oscar, Big Bird, and even human characters like Maria and Gordon. The most memorable role, however, belongs to Mandy Patinkin (Chicago Hope). He plays the villain, and he milks it for all it's worth. Also difficult to stomach.

Elmo (voice of co-producer Kevin Clash) loses his beloved blanket during a tug-of-war with his best friend Zoe (Fran Brill). It accidentally goes into Oscar's trash can and Elmo goes after it. But when he lands in Grouchland, a stinky city populated by many of Oscar's kind, he is horrified to find the blanket has been stolen by the extra-nasty Huxley (Patinkin). Against impossible odds, and with a little help from his friends, Elmo goes on an adventure leading to Huxley's castle, where he must face the selfish man and teach him how to share. In the process, Elmo learns a few tough lessons himself.

Even if I were a big Elmo fan, it would be easy to see that this production is not up to the high standards of the Henson films we have seen through the years. Where Muppets From Space and its predecessors are filled with savvy humor intended for moms and dads, Elmo's story is aimed squarely at the pre-school set. The character is bereft of subtlety, the lessons are simple, loud, and clear, and there is a suprising dearth of comedy. As Huxley, Patinkin hams it up to the point of nausea, and Elmo's constant habit of referring to himself in the third person is maddening. Also on hand is Vanessa Williams, whose character as the Queen of Trash is included solely to pad the running time out to a respectable length for a feature release. You see, while she's on the screen, like everyone else, she has to belt out a few tunes.

Elmo is technically up to the standards of Sesame Street, and it is clearly an example of that type of "family entertainment." It does have a good line every now and then, and Patinkin and Williams show adequate energy. But this film would have been more appropriate as a direct-to-video release for the holiday season. Putting it in theaters first just seems like a quick dash for cash on the part of its producers, and underscores its inability to stand up to the otherwise proud Henson legacy. ***

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive