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(1999) (Elmo, Mandy Patinkin) (G)

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Children's: Elmo tries to retrieve his favorite blanket from a greedy man who stole it after the little red Muppet inadvertently falls into Oscar the Grouch's hometown, Grouchland.
In the pleasant neighborhood bordering Sesame Street, Elmo (voice of KEVIN CLASH) is a friendly little three-year-old red "monster" who loves his comfy blanket, and will do anything to make people happy. When his friend Zoe (voice of FRAN BRILL), is upset that she didn't get to go the zoo, Elmo cheers her up.

Yet when she wants to hold his blanket, Elmo gets upset. As the two get in a tug of war over it, they don't see Telly (voice of MARTIN P. ROBINSON) who accidentally skates into it, sending Elmo on a wild chase trying to retrieve it. The blanket, however, gets away from him and lands near Oscar the Grouch (voice of CAROLL SPINNEY) who uses it to blow his nose and then throws it into his trash can.

Elmo learns of this and, impatient for Oscar to return, jumps into the can and ends up in Oscar's home. While retrieving the blanket from a lever on a wall, however, Elmo and his blanket get sucked through a colorful tunnel into Oscar's hometown of Grouchland.

There, he meets various characters, including Grizzy (voice of STEPHANIE D' ABRUZZO), as well as the greedy Huxley (MANDY PATINKIN) who, along with his assistant, Bug the bug (voice of JOSEPH MAZZARINO), steals Elmo's blanket and claims it as his. Elmo obviously wants to get it back and with some help from Grizzy, sets out for Huxley's castle to retrieve it.

Meanwhile, Elmo's friends on Sesame Street are concerned about their friend, and so set out to help him. When they arrive in Grouchland, however, Big Bird (voice of CAROLL SPINNEY), the Cookie Monster (voice of FRANK OZ), Oscar and several of their human friends are arrested and put in prison.

With his friends unable to help him, Elmo continues his quest to get his blanket back, a journey that leads him through various adventures, including a trip to Da Dump, ruled by the Queen of Trash (VANESSA WILLIAMS), while contending with Huxley and his minions, the Pesties, who try to stop his quest.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Although not a great, or for that matter much of any concern for most people, the staff of both Jim Henson Pictures (home of the Muppets) and the Children's Television Network (responsible for thirty years of "Sesame Street") may be a bit worried nowadays that their products might be becoming somewhat passé.

In today's ever increasing world of entertainment targeted at children -- that ranges from the likes of beanie babies to Pokémon and the Teletubbies to a myriad of computer and video game titles -- kids not only have more play-related options, but most of those related products have a far greater degree of interactivity than those dealing with either the Muppets or the education-based characters on "Sesame Street."

While most all kids' toys and programming have a limited shelf life or long-term appeal (think of Cabbage Patch Dolls or the Power Rangers), the cumulative facts that so much competition now exists for Big Bird and his fellow denizens that previously didn't, that the latest Muppet movie was a financial and critical disappointment, and that the Tickle Me Elmo doll is no longer in heavy demand, doesn't seem to bode well for such related products.

Yet, while "Muppets From Space" failed to capture the public's fancy and draw in the kids or any adults, if any release has what it takes to reverse that trend and reinvigorate the Muppet/Sesame Street franchise, "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" is that film.

A delightful little picture that should prove to be highly entertaining for youngsters and most, if not all of their parents, this is a great example of how to make live action entertainment geared for younger kids. Filled with enough kid-based humor, lively songs and adventure/suspense that isn't as potentially scary as many of Disney's animated features, this film is afun and innocent, near eighty minute excursion.

Despite the relatively, but not surprisingly straightforward story line and the fact that it obviously doesn't have grandiose sights and goals, the film manages to be entertaining and enjoyable enough for those who don't fall directly into either of its two target audience groups (young kids and their parents).

That said and notwithstanding enough little tidbits thrown in to amuse the adults -- a movie marque reads "Sharon Groan in ‘Basically It Stinks'" while a Grouchland-based hairdresser shop is called an "Ugly Parlor" -- the movie is primarily designed to entertain kids and it does a great job of doing just that.

Perhaps partly due to the interactive threat of those competitive products, director Gary Halvorson (who makes his feature debut after helming many TV shows, including "Muppets Tonight") and screenwriters Joseph Mazzarino (TV's "Sesame Street") and Mitchell Kriegman (a TV writer/producer) have opted to turn parts of the picture into an audience participation event.

By having various characters break the "fourth wall" and directly address the viewer, including "Street" veterans Bert and Ernie who introduce and then occasionally interrupt the film to explain things to the audience, kids will definitely feel like they're part of the event. Whether it's telling Elmo where to find his blanket or helping him blow one-hundred raspberries in less than thirty seconds, young kids will get a kick out of this.

To hedge their bets and insure that kids participate, however, the filmmakers have reverted to some acoustic tricks. As such, the audio track features "other children" who verbally play along, a point that will work in theaters, but once on video may have youngsters wondering where all of the other kids are hiding in their house.

Much like Disney's animated offerings and some of the Muppet films, this one is also a musical. The songs -- written by a small team of composers and lyricists -- may not match what Disney normally produces, but a few of them, including "I See a Kingdom" (performed by Vanessa Williams) and "Make It Mine" (a raucous tune belted out by Mandy Patinkin) are quite good. With some of the songs evoking memories of "The Lion King" soundtrack, the score and accompanying songs should please listeners of all ages.

As the comically greedy, but not very threatening or frightening villain, Patinkin (the singing and acting talent who's graced Broadway, Hollywood and TV) properly hams it up. Considering the film's target audience, he actually delivers an enjoyable performance. Meanwhile, Vanessa Williams (another multi- talented performer) only appears for her one musical number, but is good in it.

Regarding the Sesame Street characters, including the relatively new Elmo, they're as enjoyable as ever and -- certain to make their human counterparts green with envy -- haven't aged a bit over the years. With Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and many others, kids will enjoy the familiarity of those characters.

Featuring a fun soundtrack, a straightforward but effective and interactive story that won't confuse the youngest of kids -- and actually teaches a lesson -- and enough moments of adult -- but clearly not risque -- humor thrown in to appease the adults, this is a delightful little film that should appeal to the whole family. Rated relative to its target audience and the specific goals it intends to achieve -- namely entertaining young kids which it gloriously does -- we give "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed September 25, 1999 / Posted October 1, 1999

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