Touching and insightful for fans of the world’s most beloved red Muppet, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey will tickle the fancy of anyone wanting to know more about how such a prevalent pop culture phenomenon is created and honed. But the title itself is a bit of a misnomer, and the documentary in general maddeningly hints at darker material unsuitable for such a lightweight production. It’s the perfect docu-fluff to open a building like the newly rebranded Bloor Cinema since less discerning crowds can easily access the material, but that doesn’t make it more than a passable diversion at best. It’s genial enough, and Kevin Clash and his furry companion are impossible to find anything less than charming, but there really isn’t much to this one.
Director Constance Marks follows Clash’s rise from a child making puppets out of his father’s coats on the sly, to becoming a minor Baltimore area celebrity from his work on local kiddie shows, to achieving his dream of finally working for Jim Henson and his family of puppeteers.
The first part of the film is definitely the strongest, and it definitely isn’t because Elmo is nowhere to be found except in glimpses of Clash’s day to day life. The opening 45 minutes or so are better because they actually feel like they are about something. Watching Clash put in hours of hard work and suffer the occasional set back humanizes the production. The message of following your dreams and never giving up might be old as time itself, but those are the stories that often have the most heart to them. It also includes some great tidbits about Henson productions Clash worked on that haven’t been heard before. Fans of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and Muppets Tonight will crack just as many grins as die hard Elmo heads will.
It’s the second half that’s problematic, and not because Clash comes across as a successful guy. After the first half of the film that explains his rise, no one would begrudge his success, but Marks maddeningly hints that not everything in Clash’s life is as easy as a sunny day sweeping the clouds away. He’s divorced and barely sees his child. He works longer and harder than anyone to stay at the level he’s at, which sometimes means helping out other productions and going on lengthy promotional tours. It’s all stuff that the audience might not be aware of, but it gets swept to the side because the film really stops being about Clash or even his role in creating the Elmo phenomenon, but really just all about how great and cute Elmo is.
I do like Elmo, quite a lot actually, and it’s great to see that the innocence that Clash brings to the character is genuine and earnest, but by the end I was still left wanting something more. Marks does her best to balance the obviously heartwarming nature of Elmo with the personal nature of Clash, but it never fully gels into anything more than a pleasant movie. If maybe she had delved more into Clash’s personal troubles instead of playing nice, this could have been a home run. Instead, it’s just okay.