A new behind-the-scenes-of-the-Muppets documentary is always something to be happy about, even if it's centered on the one character in the mix that makes me, for one, particularly grouchy. I know, I know I'm in the minority here - the furry little monster Elmo has made millions of people very, very happy since his rise to prominence on "Sesame Street" in the U.S. It just so happens that most of those millions are children under five.
Like so many others, I was a child "Sesame Street" junkie. Big Bird, Grover, Bert & Ernie - I couldn't get enough of them. Notice the lack of our title character on that list. In the first decade of "Sesame Street", when I was fervently watching, Elmo (at least, Elmo as we know him today) did not exist. Several years after I was well beyond my favorite children's television fixation, Elmo not only hit the Street, he virtually stole it. Today, driven by sheer, unrelenting cuteness, his juggernaut-like global popularity has gone so far as to carve a separate niche out of the "Sesame" hour: A green-screen eyesore called "Elmo's World".
But wait - the whole phenomenon has gone even further than that! Now Elmo has generated this movie! Meet Kevin Clash, puppeteer to the core, and likeable kid-at-heart to the end. Clash is not only the voice and operator of Elmo, he's the spark that ignites him. Clash as a child in Baltimore was yet another "Sesame"-struck youth. Only unlike most of us, he followed up on the fixation, studying the very art of puppetry via the watching the tube, and then building and performing his own Muppet-like characters in his backyard for neighborhood kids. As you might guess, all of this eventually took him somewhere big. For Kevin Clash, the road to success was paved with foam and fleece - two things he's still up to his elbows in.
"Being Elmo" traces Clash's journey from rags to presumed riches in an engaging, if slipshod and nearly amateurish way. The filmmakers have the footage (archival stuff that makes one boggle, "why'd someone shoot that in the first place?" Vintage glimpses of Clash early in his career, performing his characters at local TV stations, or meeting key Henson inspiration and puppeteer Kermit Love for the first time) and the interviews (Frank Oz and a slew of other Henson company personal, past and present) they need to cobble a documentary on this subject - so they did just that. They cobbled it.
Once "Being Elmo" gets up and running, continuity becomes pointlessly fractured (they jump ahead in time to the Tickle Me Elmo toy craze, then back in an unintentionally haphazard manner to the uncertain early days of Clash's career) even as the running time itself begins to feel compressed. (Certain noteworthy subjects are not touched upon, such as my own introduction to Clash, his tenure as Master Splinter in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" films. Or more notably, "Elmo's World" itself is conspicuously absent.) For whatever reason, a gratingly enthusiastic Whoopie Goldberg was brought in to provide sparse but intrusive narration. Many of the times this device was utilized it was completely unnecessary - a textbook case of inappropriate use of narration in documentary filmmaking.
Despite the wondrous, wide-eyed approach to Clash and the Henson legacy he came to be a major part of, there are still assorted painful moments in the story that is told, some perhaps more intentionally painful than others. When Clash shares his humiliation at giving up on a complex puppet gag on the set of "Labyrinth" only to be reprimanded by Jim Henson, we feel the sting. But less fleshed out, and considerably deeper is Clash's own relationship with his daughter, a relationship clearly fractured in part due to his busy Elmo schedule. Clash elaborates on this, and how he's since made a point of making time for her in the brief period before she goes away to college, but when the filmmakers dwell on footage of her sweet sixteen birthday party helmed by her dad, the forced opulence of it all (a flashy ballroom, video greetings from celebrities) comes off as wince-inducing over-compensation. Again, the footage is there, it's simply somehow under-utilized, mining only a small portion of the emotional field that it could dig into.
"Being Elmo" is absolutely worth a look for a Muppet fan of any kind, but probably of little appeal beyond that. The lack of precision and focus does it in. I wish I could say that this was the better Muppet movie to see this season (as opposed to "The Muppets", a film that is growing on me a bit more since I posted a very lukewarm opening day review), but you'll want to definitely stick with Kermit and Jason Segel if faced with the choice. Elmo's world is an interesting one; it's just too bad that the documentary about it lacks the finesse it needs to be truly, compellingly adorable.
- Jim Tudor
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