The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland plays on Sunday afternoon at BAM (with an introduction by Elmo!), as part of their celebration of Sesame Street‘s 40th anniversary, a weekend of clips from the show and features (including your film editor’s personal favorite Follow That Bird.
This seeming negligible 1999 Sesame Street feature, designed to cash in on the babbling scarlet furball’s debut as a shelf-clearing toy two seasons earlier, could be more simply titled Elmo Goes to Hell, following the now-iconic monster-baby into Oscar’s trash can and through a dimensional portal to an filthy underground anti-Sesame Street as metaphoric as any Antonioni junkyard and occupied by Dada-spouting grouches who howl in nihilistic agony when they hear The Alphabet Song. Once embarked upon his own Inferno without a Virgil, the angelic Elmo struggles to retrieve his sacred blankie from Huxley (curiously named), a juggernaut of preening greed (Mandy Patinkin) who labels everything “MINE,” acting out the universal dialectic between capitalist narcissism and socialistic reason. (Indeed, every toddler learns Marx the hard way in those inevitable “sharing” skirmishes, and then sees adults horde for themselves.) As bildungsfilms go, it’s light on the take-away, but in the process a cleavage-strained Vanessa Williams shows up as the Queen of Trash (there were more potent candidates in ‘99, but this is Sesame Street, not the Courtney Love-haunted west coast), injecting a subtext of seductive sex magick into the ordeal; St. Elmo, though amused, is not tempted. Instead, Elmo’s authentic trial comes in the harrowing moment when he recognizes his selfish self as Huxley’s doppelganger. Growing up is hard to do. As surely as Teletubbies was a terrifying tot Videodrome, Elmo’s passion was John Bunyan for millennial preschoolers.