Friday, October 1, 1999

Cut from the same cloth

Movie: The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland

Posted on Fri, Oct 1, 1999 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland
Length: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Website: http://www.spe.sony.com/movies/elmo/indexwithnav.html
Release Date: 1999-10-01
Cast: Mandy Patinkin, Vanessa Williams
Director: Gary Halvorson
Screenwriter: Mitchell Kriegman, Joseph Mazzarino
Music Score: John Debney
WorkNameSort: The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland
Our Rating: 3.50

"There's no place like home." That's the unstated mantra that must be on the minds of furry, red, squeaky-voiced Elmo and the popular Muppet's pals from PBS television's "Sesame Street" throughout "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland."

It's a lightweight, familiar comic adventure that ought to thrill the very young while providing limited amusement for their adult chaperones, who are left to make do with occasional sight gags and over-the-top performances and musical numbers by Mandy Patinkin and Vanessa Williams.

The longing for home was also at the center of 1984's "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird," which took friendly yellow giant Big Bird on a quest in search of his identity. The Children's Television Workshop subsequently waited 15 years to return to the big screen, its new feature arriving on the heels of the Emmy-winning show's 30th-anniversary season.

This time, the protagonist's motivation is less complicated: Elmo -- familiar to parents everywhere as the inspiration for the must-have gift of Christmases past -- has lost his beloved blue blanket, and must go through all kinds of heck to get it back.

The first feature from television director Gary Halvorson ("Friends," "The Drew Carey Show"), the movie looks to hook the younger set from the start, with introductory advice offered by Bert and Ernie, unofficial hosts who occasionally step in to explain the action to those in need.

Elmo, it seems, is going to need the help of audience members to make it through his trials. So we hear kids' voices in the background that repeatedly alert the lovable creature to the whereabouts of his temporarily misplaced best friend, his blanket.

Alas, a series of slapstick coincidences cause Elmo's favorite object to land in the garbage-pail home of Oscar the Grouch. Elmo dives right into the trash can, grabs his blanket and stumbles into a swirling, psychedelic funnel that dumps him into Grouchland. (The sequence is one of several offhand references to "The Wizard of Oz.")

That initial arrival -- with the ragamuffin Grouches hoisting an "Unwelcome" sign in honor of Elmo -- is among the movie's most entertaining sequences. We see a dilapidated movie theater, with a marquee boasting the appearance of Sharon Groan in "Basically, It Stinks" (a jab at Sharon Stone's apparent inability to take "Saturday Night Live's" mockery?). Over here is an Ugly Parlor. And over there is a sign warning "Positively No Smiling."

Minutes later, the befuddled Elmo encounters the mean and greedy Huxley, a ne'er-do-well with bushy eyebrows and an unpleasant disposition who's played with glee by Broadway, TV and movie veteran Patinkin.

Taking to the air in his Huxocopter, Huxley flies across Grouchland, vacuuming up everything he could possibly want. His castle back on Mount Pickanose is thus stuffed to the brim with the widest variety of fun toys, each one identified with a tag reading "Mine."

See? Sharing is best! It's a lesson Elmo also learns through the encouragement of the Queen of Trash (Williams), who struts through her land of junk while belting out a big production number, "I See a Kingdom."

There's another lesson lurking around in "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland": Friends -- like Oscar, Big Bird, Zoe, Prairie Dawn and the Count, as well as Grouchland denizens Bug the Bug, Grouch Girl Grizzy and the Stenchmen -- are to be valued above all. That was the message, too, of the far more exuberant summer comedy, Muppets From Space. Call it synchronicity ... or sharing your toys, if you're in a playground state of mind.

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