Preschoolers will be tickled by “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland,” an excessively winsome comedy aimed at little ones who might find Barney the Purple Dinosaur too intimidating. But this latest Muppet movie — only the second, after 1985’s “Follow That Bird,” to showcase the “Sesame Street” menagerie — is too tepid to interest anyone old enough to operate a TV remote control. Even so, there’s a silver lining for the folks at Jim Henson Pictures: After a brief theatrical run, “Elmo” will doubtless generate brisk video sales, enjoying a long afterlife as an electronic babysitter.
Tissue-thin plot focuses on an eventful journey taken by Elmo, the little red furball voiced by Kevin Clash. Normally a mild-mannered homebody, the cute critter is forced to leave his Sesame Street stomping grounds when his beloved blanket is accidentally tossed into the infamous garbage can of Oscar the Grouch (Carol Spinney). Elmo jumps into the can to retrieve his animated blue buddy, only to find himself in Oscar’s messy living room. One thing leads to another, a secret passageway opens — and Elmo, along with his blanket, is sucked into a swirling tunnel that carries him to Grouchland, the yuckiest place in the universe.
As Elmo traverses the trashy metropolis — a city where children order anchovies on their ice cream and women get makeovers at the Ugly Parlor — he runs afoul of Huxley (Mandy Patinkin), a bombastic, bushy-browed bad guy whose selfishness has no bounds. He claims Elmo’s blanket as his own, then flies back to his fortress in his giant flying machine. Not surprisingly, Elmo follows — and is in turn followed by Big Bird, Oscar and various other denizens of Sesame Street.
Working from a script by Mitchell Kriegman and Joseph Mazzarino, director Gary Halvorson — a TV vet making his feature debut — somehow manages to make pic seem at once frenetic and soporific. There is a great deal of activity — singing, dancing, wallowing in garbage, learning of life lessons — but absolutely nothing is allowed to get out of hand. Indeed, each time a modest amount of suspense is generated, the pic stops dead in its tracks so the affable Bert and Ernie can appear onscreen to tell the audience that there’s nothing to worry about, everything will turn out OK.
“Elmo in Grouchland” is very much an audience-participation pic — characters repeatedly address the camera and share their feelings or ask for encouragement. And just to make sure the target audience knows how to respond, the pic comes equipped with the equivalent of a sitcom laughtrack. Unseen children laugh, cheer, clap and sing along. How sweet.
Patinkin, who looks and sounds as though he’s channeling the spirit of Anthony Newley, gives a zestfully hammy — but, of course, not very frightening — performance. And Vanessa Williams is an exceptionally radiant Queen of Trash while warbling one of the pic’s many aggressively cheery and instantly forgettable songs. Other human stars, including “Sesame Street” regulars, fail to register much impact. Standout among the new Muppet puppets is Bug the Bug (Joseph Mazzarino), Huxley’s loyal but ineffective assistant.
Elmo, Big Bird and the other vet “Sesame Street” puppets go through their familiar paces with kid-friendly charm. Tech values are appropriately garish and colorful.