By Aaron Cutler
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The gentlest and most innocent of the Muppet "monsters" of Sesame Street is aimed at the show's littlest viewers. As a result, he's also the least amusing for adults; even if you grant that Elmo is awfully sweet, you may wince at the prospect of sitting through his big-screen starring debut with your kids.
Happily, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland turns out to be a peach, an imaginative and ingeniously worked-out fantasy that throws a welcome bone or two to the adults in the audience. Elmo is too modest and self-effacing to be very funny, but his more worldly pals, like Grover -- and his alter ego Super Grover -- and Oscar the Grouch provide plenty of wit, as does guest star Mandy Patinkin.
Like any good epic, the plot is about a quest. After getting into a squabble with his friend Zoe, who wanted to hold Elmo's security blanket while she was feeling sad, our fuzzy red hero loses the beloved blue blanket down Oscar's garbage can. When he sneaks into Oscar's home in search of it, he slips accidentally into a sort of interdimensional warp. At this point, the film stops, and longtime companions Bert and Ernie interrupt the action to reassure the audience that all will work out well. There are several more such vignettes at stressful points in the story; it's one of the nicest touches.
When the action resumes, Elmo pops out in Oscar's garbage-cluttered native land, which is under the grip of a tyrant. Huxley (Patinkin), who travels through the air in what he calls a "cartoonishly evil vehicle," has taken infantile acquisitiveness to obsessive levels. He lives with his entourage of bugs in a mansion cluttered with everything from toys to discarded tissue, all of which he has taken away from others -- his showstopping number is called "Make It Mine."
There has always been a childlike streak to Mandy Patinkin's performing. What makes this quality wonderful is that he doesn't use it only to make himself adorable. His boyish attractiveness in Yentl and his soft-spoken comic politeness in The Princess Bride are balanced by a darker childishness -- as the self-worshiping surgeon in the 1991 Randa Haines film The Doctor, and later, as another version of the same character on TV's Chicago Hope, Patinkin is every inch a little boy who knows that he's the center of the universe and is furious when anyone disagrees. In Elmo he gets to play this attitude to exaggerated degrees, and you can sense his relish in indulging his taste for over-the-top performing. Oddly, he doesn't lose his likability.
It's Huxley, of course, who has Elmo's blanket -- which he calls a "wubbie," though Elmo, who's too mature for baby talk, calls it by its proper name -- among his booty. Along the way to retrieve it, Elmo recognizes that it was his own selfishness that caused his blanket to be lost. This negative-example parody of the urge to yell, "Mine!" is just about the only moral that has any applicability to the lives of this movie's target audience.
Kevin Clash performs Elmo and several other roles, and the puppeteers include Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, David Rudman, Joseph Mazzarino, Caroll Spinney, Frank Oz and Steve Whitmire, who does fine reproductions of the characters (Ernie among them) that used to be voiced by Jim Henson. The live-action cast includes longtime Sesame Street cast members Sonia Manzano, Roscoe Orman, Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado, Ruth Buzzi and Loretta Long.
The songs are mostly good; Alan Cassie's production designs are delightful; and the debuting director, TV sitcom veteran Gary Halvorson, stages an audience-participation gag involving the blowing of raspberries that's like a more pungent version of clapping to revive Tink in Peter Pan. Vanessa Williams has one scene as the Queen of Trash, and she's . . . well, there's no way around it, she's really sexy. Especially when she's blowing raspberries.
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