Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

3 Dec

Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Year: 2011
Director: Constance Marks
Writers: Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein
Starring: Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz, Jim Henson
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 86 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 8.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

The Muppets just stormed into theaters this past Thanksgiving weekend, led by Jason Segel to a seriously astonishing critical reception and a commercial performance that showed everyone the Muppets were back in town charming our pants off. However, I still haven’t seen that latest film, even though I’m really dying to do so, but as the huge Muppets fan that I am Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey may just be enough to get me going until I finally get to check out the new Muppets film.

This documentary focuses on Kevin Clash, a guy that was also a huge fan of the Muppets, a guy who really wanted to make puppets of his own and who one day just couldn’t fight the urge of cutting his dad’s coat to bring his first creation to life. This is kind of like the Jim Henson fan that puts all of us other Jim Henson fans to shame, he followed the Muppet creator’s blueprint pretty much every step of the way, building his own puppets, getting started on a local kid TV show in the same area as his hero once did. That, of course, started leading to bigger and better things, the culmination of which came when he was asked to come on board for Sesame Street. The rest, as they say, is history; Kevin Clash was given the task of taking over Elmo, a character he reinvented to become the lovable red puppet we all know and love today, one that’s as beloved by children worldwide and as popular a Christmas toy because of what Mr. Clash brought to him.

This is a seriously neat documentary, it’s not the best of the year (Senna holds that honor so far, by a mile) because it’s not necessarily like a super incisive or courageous or bold, statement-making documentary, it’s just a neat little look at the life of a kid who grew up in a middle-class suburb of Baltimore, making puppets as a way to express himself, putting shows for the kids of his neighborhood and eventually finding stardom because of those unique set of skills. And director Constance Marks makes really good use of all the footage and interviews he has to work with here, giving us close looks to the events that really marked Mr. Clash’s life, including some really neat looks at the time when he met Kermit Love which gave him a big break, and an account of the time when he discovered the Elmo character.

So this really plays out like just a really nice and kind of inspiring biography of Mr. Clash, there are times in which Mr. Marks tries to give this one some sort of drama by showing us the guilt Mr. Clash sometimes feels about not spending as much time as he would like with his daughter, but for the most part this is just a really happy affair that may make more than one audience member rush home and try to follow his or her dream. Because that’s kind of how it all works out here, we have a really hard-working guy who was really good at what he did, a guy who was backed up by his family in such a weird career path (his dad only told him to ask before he did it again when he found out his son had made a puppet out of his coat) and who made it big, and is now focusing on sharing his talent with young people who want to do the same, and giving heaps of kids all around the world some joyous moments thanks to his most celebrated creation.

Because one can’t deny that Elmo is just a really nifty creation, and finding out how that little red furry guy came to be is quite enchanting thanks to how this film tells it. Another puppeteer had tried Elmo out, but couldn’t quite crack the little fella and so it was given to Mr. Clash who started toying around with it, trying out all sorts of different voices until the one we all know and love came about, and later deciding that Elmo was to be all about giving and feeling loved, about hugs and tickles.

Now look, I said this is a neat film with pretty much no real conflict within it other than the death of Jim Henson and the stuff about him not seeing his daughter all that much, and those kind of adversities are what usually make documentaries compelling to me. So because there wasn’t anything major to add conflict is kind of why I didn’t find Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey to be one of the year’s best documentaries, but in just how easy-going and uncomplicated it is, it does manage to reach a pretty magical stride. Because magical is the right word to describe the community of puppeteers, all of them sharing Kevin Clash’s love for their art and for Jim Henson, and all of them giving their all to their little creations, studying the smallest of details in order to share so much happiness with kids around the world. This film is bursting with love much like Elmo, and also much like Elmo, it’s damn hard not to love it back.

Grade: B+

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