Scott Neumyer is the author of Jimmy Stone's Ghost Town. He's a publicist for Click Communications as well as a writer and photographer. You can reach him on Twitter and at www.scottwrites.com. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.
"Raising a Cinephile" is a recurring column about preparing your child to be knowledgable and interested in high-quality cinema. In it, Scott breaks down the movies, television, and cartoons he's showing his two-year-old daughter now to help her appreciate the finer side of film as she reaches the age where she can choose her own entertainment in hopes that all his preparation will allow her to make the best decisions possible. Plus, it gives him a good excuse to revisit some really nostalgic movies. Bonus!
I have to admit that it took me a good, long while to come around to Elmo’s inherent charm. You see, when I was growing up in the early 80’s, Elmo wasn’t the star of the show that he is nowadays. Elmo was simply a bit player in the Sesame Street universe. He was no more important than any of the other Muppets in a great ensemble cast that consisted of mainstays like Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Mr. Snuffleupagus (bet you didn’t know his first name is Aloysius), and Grover (my personal favorite as a child).
As I grew older, I started to resent Elmo’s rise to the top of the Sesame Street heap. What had this little red monster done to warrant millions of crazed parents risking life and limb to get their child a Tickle-Me Elmo doll for Christmas? I didn’t see the appeal and wondered why the rest of the crew was getting slighted in favor of Elmo. I was mad and I swore I’d never fall into the Elmo hype.
That was before The Wiggle Bear was born and I started watching more and more Sesame Street on a daily basis. Day by day Elmo worked his charm on me. His never-ending optimism was insatiable. It was exactly what a sleep-deprived parent needed to deal with the stresses of childrearing. It provided that little bright glimmer of hope that the world was a happy and good place every single moment of every single day. To say the least, Elmo had won me over.
And, while Sesame Street is a fantastic show that’s been both incredibly entertaining and educational since it’s debut in 1969, it’s not exactly something I’d normally include in my efforts to raise a cinephile. It’s required viewing for any toddler, but it’s not going to nudge them into becoming a Terrence Malick fan. That is until I discovered the awesomeness that is the 1999 feature film The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.
Now this is something I could get behind. A feature-length adventure with the entire Sesame Street gang (with Elmo as the star) and a supporting cast that boasts Vanessa Williams and the legendary Mandy Patinkin. Wow. I’ll watch pretty much anything Patinkin does and the thought of giving The Wiggle Bear a very early dose of Inigo Montoya was more than enough for me to order the DVD immediately. And it turned out to be one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland follows Elmo on a journey to recover his lost blanket (his “best friend”) that’s fallen through Oscar’s trashcan and straight into the portal to Grouchland USA. Once there, the evil Huxley (played to perfection by Patinkin) steals the blanket to keep in his collection – the greedy villain simply takes whatever he wants from the Grouchland residents, literally stamps it “MINE” and keeps it for his own. Elmo must overcome self-doubt, mental and physical tests, and learn the value of teamwork and sharing to get his beloved blanket back.
That sounds about as generic as it comes, right? Wrong! The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland takes some wild turns when you don’t expect it, has a few great lessons for the kiddos, and features absolute bravura performances from Patinkin and Kevin Clash (Elmo’s voice and puppeteer). Not to mention a pretty hilariously campy turn from Vanessa Williams as the Queen of Trash.
The obvious cinephile connection to be found in The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland is Mandy Patinkin. He’s the star of the show (at least for the parents watching that have had their fill of Elmo for the day) and dominates every single scene in which he appears. From his wacky get-up to the enormous eyebrows he wears, it’s clear he’s having fun playing Huxley. The opportunity to get your children to watch a real actor doing his thing is invaluable in the raising of a cinephile. It’s not that the actors on Sesame Street aren’t excellent actors because they are; They’re just not on the same level as Patinkin. The man is a genius and it shows with every expression, movement, and inflection of his voice in the film. This is quality cinema wrapped in a silly kid’s movie’s exterior.
Aside from Patinkin’s acting chops, the film also displays enough familiar Sesame Street characters and action to keep a child’s attention throughout its seventy-plus minutes. In fact, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland was the very first feature length film I was able to get The Wiggle Bear to sit through. And she didn’t just sit through it… She devoured it. She stared in awe at the screen and asked to watch it again immediately after the end credits. I’d say that’s a win.
It may not be a perfect film and it’s not going to win any Academy Awards, but The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland is easily one of the very best feature-length films you can introduce to your little cinephile-in-training. It has everything you’ve come to love from Sesame Street while throwing in a few clever movie references (yeah, that’s right, there’s a reference to Doctor Zhivago), some amazing acting, and a little red monster with more heart than anyone you’ve ever met.
I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Elmo. You not only won me over, but you’ve become my new favorite Muppet. And all it took was Kevin Clash and a little Inigo Montoya.