Parents who are still smarting from the "Tickle-Me-Elmo" craze a couple of years back might rather sit through a Barney marathon than watch and listen to the baby-talking red yarnball for an entire hour. But rest assured, folks: "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" is painless. Indeed, with spectacular support from non-Muppets Mandy Patinkin and Vanessa Williams, the little guy proves to be downright unobjectionable.
Of course, the baby-talk thing wears a bit thin after, oh, the first three minutes. And the scraggly little puppet has an oddly Nixonian propensity for referring to himself in the third person. But luckily, Elmo graciously shares the stage with a cast of players who will not only delight youngsters but will come as sweet relief to grown-ups.
Not only are such veterans as Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster and Oscar -- the Barrymores of the Muppet world -- on hand, but Patinkin and Williams provide some genuinely winning musical numbers that will inspire toe-tapping in even the Gruffest Grouch.
"The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" opens with the beatific sight of little Elmo (whose signature whisper is provided by former Baltimorean Kevin Clash) sleeping in his toy-strewn room, his security blanket firmly ensconced in his four-fingered grip. Film-goers soon learn that Blanket is Elmo's most prized possession, and in one of many audience-participation sequences, Elmo leads kids on a search for his playmate, which behaves like a super- charged flying carpet.
Elmo and Blanket are happily walking home from the laundromat when a tussle breaks out with Elmo's best friend, Zoe, whose grab for the cuddly wrap sends Blanket on another flight of fancy. This time, though, Blanket winds up in Oscar the Grouch's famous trash can, where a secret doorway leads to Grouchland, a stinky bizarro-world whose denizens go to "ugly parlors" and "wash" their cars with grime. It's there that Huxley (Patinkin), the greediest man in the universe, takes possession of Blanket with his signature line, "Mine!" And it's there that Elmo, on a quest to rescue Blanket from Huxley's clutches, finds courage he didn't know he had.
"The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" has been produced with the flair, color and non-stop action that audiences have come to expect from Muppets productions, and special care has been taken to keep youngsters both engaged and reassured. Every so often Elmo or another character asks for help from the folks on the other side of the screen, which should result in some delightedly noisy theaters. And whenever the action could possibly scare really young film-goers, Bert and Ernie stop the film, at which point Ernie assures Bert that everything will turn out fine.
Patinkin, who underwent a whopper eyebrow augmentation for his role, has great fun hamming it up as the odious Huxley, and his soaring soprano is just right for the villain's catchy musical numbers. As the Queen of Trash, who helps Elmo out on his journey, Williams reigns over a magnificent dump with the glamorous hauteur of a raggedy Titania. (She's also responsible for the movie's giddiest interactive sequence.)
With a sprightly, Caribbean-inflected musical score and a quickly moving story, "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" will keep everyone's attention, regardless of age. And no parent will argue with the movie's lessons about sharing. "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" has provided them with a perfect admonition whenever Junior gets grabby; after all, who wants to be known as a Greedy Huxley?
'The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland'
Starring Mandy Patinkin, Vanessa Williams
Directed by Gary Halvorson
Running time 77 minutes
Released by Columbia Pictures
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 10/01/99