There’s a remarkable restraint in the documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey.” Elmo, who is recognized as one of the world’s most beloved children’s characters, could have allowed the movie to veer into serious waterworks.
The heartbreaking stories of dying children asking for an afternoon with Elmo as their one last wish through the ‘Make a Wish Foundation’ are moving. But it doesn’t feel contrived.
Directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane could easily have created a bloated, sentimental journey through Muppets history, given that a new Muppets movie release is slated for Thanksgiving.
At its core, ‘Being Elmo’ is a story about doing what you love and owning up to the 'doing' part and letting that happiness shine through.
Kevin Clash, Baltimore native and master puppeteer, is the unexpected force behind Elmo. An affable guy, with a near tangible love for love and joy, the film chronicles his early years of learning the craft of puppeteering.
He experimented with the right type of fabric (fleece) to withstand hand sewing and agonized over the perfect voice for one of his prototype fantastical creatures. The viewer is treated to an inside, generally unknown, masterful look into the world of puppets.
On a downside, some of the recreated, almost dewy still shot scenes between legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson and Muppet designer Kermit Love are cheesy and unconvincing. But the originalClash photos and videos from his teenage sewing days to working on his first movie set in London, Henson's ‘Labyrinth,’ balance out the archival footage. We get to walk Clash’s path and watch him grow as a person.
We see his often-shy personality, one that would lend well to working behind the scenes, crouched under four legged, googly-eyed critters. But with every stitch and TV show set he perfected, we see Clash’s talent as the person who pioneered a cultural icon.
This added dimension takes the movie from merely being 85 minutes of cuddly, improbably cute Elmo moments (which actually as adults, we forget Elmo’s power to warm others) to a simply-told story about a black man growing up in a place and a time where his life’s passion to “play with dolls” was, at best, considered unusual.
His is not a story of hardship, as he was surrounded by his family and mentors. But this does not come across as dull.
Clash never once loses the unmistakable twinkle in his eye when talking about his life’s work. He took a complete leap of faith in firmly deciding on this path and now we see him traveling he world mentoring the cast of ‘5, Rue Sesame’ in France or inviting a precocious, amateur puppeteer into his studio to teach another generation a lesson in puppeteering.
Clash just wanted to do the thing that juiced him. And that's something that anyone, red and furry or not, can admire and carry with them in even in the quietest of moments.