An unambitious indie documentary with a sunny disposition and charm to spare, ‘Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey’ is likely the lightest doc you’ll see in 2011, but it might also be the most pleasurable one you’ll see as well. Documentarians Constance Marks and Philip Shane obviously have a lot of love for their subject (hell, both of their subjects, technically) and interest in how Elmo came to be, and while that almost schoolgirl crush occasionally obfuscates from some interesting directions that the flick could go in, overall there’s very little to complain about here. Fans of ‘Sesame Street’ or the Muppets in general will quite enjoy what they see here, especially during some of the behind the scenes style moments. Everyone else will find this somewhat disposable, but still likely entertaining. As someone who really loved the Muppets, and still does…this was a good 90 minutes of smiling for me. I don’t hesitate in calling this one of the feel good films of the year, since that’s the whole point of Elmo. Elmo is about love and making you feel good.
A documentary about the man behind Elmo, as well as what the puppet means to the world, we follow the story of Kevin Clash, who went from a poor boy in Baltimore to one of the top guys on ‘Sesame Street’. As a boy, Clash was entranced with what Jim Henson and his “Muppeteers” were able to do and wanted to emulate them. He made his own puppets and began performing. His dedication and skill eventually made him a local television celebrity. By the time he’s out of High School, he’s off to New York to work on bigger shows. Working with the Muppets and Henson wasn’t far off, but the real fame wouldn’t begin until he was working on ‘Sesame Street’ and a fellow puppeteer got frustrated with a puppet named Elmo and gave him to Kevin to try his luck at. The world was about to meet one of the most popular puppets ever to appear on television. The doc also gets a bit into the meaning of Elmo for the world as well as the toll Clash’s dedication to his craft takes on his family, but mostly it’s an upbeat look at a guy doing what he loves.
Kevin Clash as a person comes off like someone who genuinely appreciates what he has. The moments where he regrets not being there for his daughter as she grows up are touching and emotional, but more often than not you’re just seeing the good times. He’s a hard worker and really does have a talent. When you see him give life to this inanimate objects, it’s truly something special. With Elmo, it’s an even more intense association and feeling.
Marks and Shane (who shares a writing credit with Justin Weinstein on this) do shoot this documentary with rose colored glasses on, but you can forgive that considering the subject matter. I don’t know that anyone actually wants a hard hitting look at ‘Sesame Street’ and the dangers of a Tickle Me Elmo. They avoid getting to deep into any of the downsides of being Kevin Clash, but this clearly is meant to be for fans of Elmo more than curious character study aficionados. I will concede that there’s nothing cinematic about this documentary, and it might actually have played better on something like PBS, but it’s hardly a big complaint when you’re enjoying the flick like I was. This definitely isn’t anything too groundbreaking, but it will make you smile. Call me crazy, but I think this might actually end up being a surprise nominee for Best Documentary Feature. The voters see such dark fare when deciding what films to tap that something refreshing like this could make the cut. It didn’t work for other docs like ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’. but it just might this time around.
Overall, ‘Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey’ is a small documentary with small goals in mind, but the charm and warmth of Elmo itself (himself?) more than make up for that. Don’t go in expecting your life to change, but go in expecting to smile a lot. If you do that, you likely can’t go wrong. Despite its small stature, like the red puppet in question…it’s full of love!
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