My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
Like seemingly all Americans over the past half-century or so, I grew up with the puppet oddballs of Jim Henson and company. Kermit The Frog, Fozzie Bear, Big Bird, Cookie Monster: These were my beloved childhood companions. Yet I didn’t truly understand the magic of the worlds Henson created until I became a parent myself.
In the past year or so, I have developed a fondness for Sesame Street that borders on obsessive. I may actually enjoy Sesame Street more than my 2-and-a-half-year-old son does at this point. I am particularly enamored of the furry red menace known as Elmo. So I was shocked to discover, deep into my Sesame Street addiction, that he’d actually starred in a theatrically released movie in 1999 called The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland that flopped commercially and faded culturally to the point that I did not even realize it existed. And I was a full-time film critic here at the time of its release.
Like The Muppets movies, Elmo In Grouchland is meta in a kid-friendly rather than academic sense. It begins with Bert and Ernie directly addressing the audience. This won’t strike Sesame Street viewers as strange, since characters break the fourth wall so often it barely exists, and they regularly talk to the audience at home. What is unusual is the nature of Ernie’s spiel. Before watching Elmo I wondered how the filmmakers intended to get perpetually distracted young moppets to pipe the fuck down and sit quietly for an entire film. Considering the attention spans of Elmo’s target audience, that’s an awfully big challenge. A 1998 Barney movie flopped simply because the audience for Barney was not a movie audience. Barney appealed, exclusively, it seems, to a pre-moviegoing audience, which pretty much sank Barney’s Great Adventure from its inception.
The same is probably true of Elmo In Grouchland. The audience for Elmo was also a pre-moviegoing audience that lacked the attention span to sit quietly for the length of a feature film. So The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland did something audacious. It specifically invited audiences not to sit quietly but to be active participants in the adventure. In words that played a big role in the film’s failure, Ernie begins the film by telling the audience, “Now in this movie, Elmo is going to ask for your help! He wants you to talk and play along.” This is theoretically good news for the 2-year-olds in the audience. They have been liberated from the cruel dictates of appropriate theater behavior by the film itself. Elmo gives its audience the green light to behave like the tiny little humans they are. Alas, by freeing the babies, toddlers, and very small children in the audience to behave like babies, toddlers, and very small children, the movie simultaneously sentences adults to 72 minutes of high-pitched screeching and pounding headaches.
Longtime readers of this column might recognize this misguided “get toddlers into theaters by encouraging them to yell at the screen” strategy from 2012’s wonderfully, transcendentally misguided Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure, which I covered halfway through this column’s now 10-year run. There are many, many reasons that Oogieloves failed. In hindsight, it’s curious that the makers of Oogieloves, which seemed like an adaptation of a popular pre-existing children’s entertainment property but was not, thought they could succeed with a repulsive set of all-new characters where a beloved, wildly popular character like Elmo failed. Honestly, if Elmo and the rest of the Sesame Street gang can’t succeed in selling the idea of children being encouraged to yell back to the screen, then no one and nothing could.
The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland actually goes refreshingly light on the “encouraging children to yell at the screen” angle. Yet the film’s willingness to kick things off by promising adults that they’ll be hearing lots of tiny little yells for the next 70 minutes or so helps explain how a seemingly fool-proof idea like an Elmo movie released at the height of his popularity could flop.
After that introduction we move from the meta world of Bert and Ernie to the friendly confines of 123 Sesame Street, where our lovable red protagonist is getting ready to start the day with a song of love and devotion to his best friend and most beloved possession, a sentient blanket. The blanket hasn’t figured that prominently in the Sesame Street episodes I’m familiar with. This leads me to wonder if the blanket in question wasn’t marched into a back alley and executed gang-land style as bloody retribution for Elmo In Grouchland’s commercial failure. Someone had to pay, after all, for the film death, and it sure wasn’t going to be money-making Elmo.
Some find Elmo insufferable. They complain about his high-pitched squeal, his unmotivated giggling, his cloying niceness and oppressively sunny disposition. With all due respect, these people can all go fuck themselves. You know how you felt during your most sublime and transformative drug, your best religious or spiritual experiences? That’s Elmo’s baseline. That’s where he’s at when he wakes up every morning: in a state of permanent bliss.
Elmo’s defining quality is that he’s nice. When I was an angry young man, I sneered at nice. Nice was boring. Nice was sentimental. Nice was maudlin and sticky-sweet and the enemy of art and truth. I feel differently now. I adore nice. I adore kindness. I adore basic human decency. Consequently, I adore Elmo. Elmo is kindness personified, but he’s also 3-and-a-half years old and acts his age. So when his friend Zoe lovingly caresses Elmo’s beloved blanket longer than he’s comfortable with, he freaks out and gets mad at her. It’s a dynamic that plays out regularly on Sesame Street: Elmo lets his selfishness or immaturity get the best of him, then must learn that people are more important than possessions (even sentient blankets).
Usually, that takes about 15 minutes of small screen time before Elmo learns his lesson and hugs are exchanged. The stakes are much higher for a movie, however, so in this case it takes tens of millions of dollars, 73 or so minutes of screen time, a boatload of new puppet oddballs, and some very impressive sets and costumes for Elmo to learn how to share.
The action kicks into high gear when Elmo’s beloved blanket ends up being haphazardly tossed into Oscar The Grouch’s garbage can. From there, it heads to the upside-down world of Grouchland, the impressively disgusting world where Oscar and his people reside in a state of contented misery. It’s a subterranean realm where everyone is mean and unpleasant and only derives joy from making other people unhappy. In our world, this place is known as “the internet.”
Oscar is, in every sense, the anti-Elmo, even if he still manages to be adorable in spite of himself. He’s all bad vibes and concentrated, curdled nastiness, making a perfect foil for a hero who is all sunshine and rainbows. The screenwriters and various technicians have a lot of fun imagining Grouchland as a bizarro version of Sesame Street. It’s a place where, as a peppy musical number posits, the “streets are paved with solid mold” and schadenfreude reigns as the dominant cultural force. Everyone lives to make each other unhappy, and then bask in that unhappiness. No one makes more grouches unhappy and derives more delight from nastiness than comically evil, caterpillar-browed villain Huxley (Mandy Patinkin, from Run Ronnie Run).
Huxley rampages through Grouchland taking everything he touches, whether he wants it or not. He’s assisted, after a fashion, by sidekick Bug. If Elmo were a hit and not a strangely forgotten part of Sesame Street lore, Bug would have been its breakout star. He embodies an archetype surprisingly common throughout Jim Henson’s creations: the fantastical puppet with the voice and spirit of a blue collar character actor from the 1930s or ’40s, the kind that calls everyone “Bub” or “Mack” or “Boss.” Bug ultimately proves the movie’s hero when he has a change of heart and turns on his overly acquisitive slave-driver.
Patinkin throws himself into the role of Grouchland’s preeminent menace with disconcerting, eyebrow-wiggling abandon. He is a villain worthy of our red furry hero. The ingratiating prickliness of Grouchland keeps the sweetness that is the core of Elmo’s persona from getting overly sticky or syrupy. The defiant yuck of Grouchland acts as the yin to Sesame Street’s relentlessly positive yang and keeps things from devolving into maudlin sentimentality.
After Huxley procures the blanket, Elmo sets out on a pint-sized hero’s journey to retrieve it, encountering various fantastical creatures—often of the tuneful variety—along the way. The Sesame Street gang, meanwhile, ventures to Grouchland themselves in a bid to aid Elmo and quickly end up in prison for their troubles. Bert and Ernie, meanwhile, return every 20 minutes or so to break the fourth wall to assure the audience that while Elmo might appear to be in danger, he’ll be just fine.
There’s an awful lot going on here for people immune to Elmo’s charms. As with so much Henson-derived work, much of the child-like joy of Elmo In Grouchland lies in its meticulous world-building. Grouchland is an alternate universe of old-world artisanship, made out of felt and wood and endless hours of painstaking toil by craftsman pathologically devoted to their craft. I imagine there’s some CGI as well, but the foundation of Grouchland is ingratiatingly physical and visceral rather than virtual and digital.
The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland hits the usual character beats involving a hero learning to believe in himself and conquer his fears while experiencing the requisite emotional growth. By the time Elmo returns to Sesame Street, you better believe he’s ready to share his blanket with Zoe and be happy about it. But if Elmo In Grouchland follows a predictable, familiar path, it does so with great charm, humor, warmth, and a mostly tolerable level of gooey sentiment. So why did this winning little vehicle for one of the most popular and ubiquitous pop-culture icons of the past 50 years fail so spectacularly at the box office?
As I wrote earlier, the answer lies in the film’s target audience. My wife and I recently took our son to see the big Christmas show at Atlanta’s Center For Puppetry Arts, a wonderful museum with a massive Henson display that lovingly and exhaustively chronicles the man’s work and legacy but only mentions Elmo In Grouchland in passing. About 10 minutes in, some very impressive-looking reindeer puppets came onstage and my son lost his mind and started yelling, “Reindeer! Reindeer! Reindeer!”
That is an understandable response to seeing beautifully wrought puppet reindeer if you’re 2-and-a-half and have never seen anything like that before. It is, not, however, something you want to hear from the seat next to you if you’re trying to enjoy a puppet show, so our experiment in seeing whether he could handle a production like that ended shortly after it began. Taking a 2- or 3-year-old to see a 70 minute show, whether live or in a movie theater, is often a tricky experiment with a number of potential outcomes, many of them negative, unless the tot in question is socialized to be able to handle entertainment of that length. The crushing commercial failure of Elmo’s sole cinematic vehicle suggests that a lot of parents weren’t willing to risk the potential chaos of unleashing their rampaging tornado of a toddler into the fragile ecosystem of a movie theater.
I suspect the movie did a lot better on home video, where children could yell along to their heart’s content without risking the rage of nearby patrons. I intend to find out for myself—I enjoyed The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland so much I’m planning on showing it to my son. I’ll be doing so at home, of course. This is one major motion picture that did not necessarily benefit from a “theatrical” experience it casually tried to transform, and was ultimately defeated by.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success