"Elmo wants his blanket back now," yells the little red Muppet monster during a climactic moment in "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland." (All Muppet monsters from "Sesame Street" -- Cookie, Telly et al, refer to themselves in the third-person; that's monster-ese.)
And Elmo has a mighty fine adventure, too -- a droll variation on "The Wizard of Oz," with neon-colored critters cavorting in whimsical settings and a ridiculous villain. All of it is carefully designed not to scare tots and to amuse older kids and parents in the process. "Elmo" even sneaks in a message about sharing and accepting those who are different -- or stinkier -- than thou.
The movie is a feature-length (well, 77 minutes) escapade designed to take the popular 30-year-old (seriously) PBS/Children's Television Workshop show to a higher level of storytelling and special effects, without altering the familiar format.
Elmo (voice of Kevin Clash) sings a good-morning song to his beloved soft and cuddly blanket, then acts selfishly in a tug-of-war with Zoe, who wants to hold it. The blanket tears a bit, then Telly crashes into it on his skates and it goes flying, landing on Oscar the Grouch, who blows his nose with it, drops it into his trash can and wanders off.
Elmo, who's a 3 1/2-year-old monster, can't wait for Oscar to return, so he dives into the can and gets sucked into a psychedelic rainbow tunnel and hurtled into Grouchland. Elmo knows he's not on Sesame street anymore when a beauty shop is an "ugly parlor," and "I Know I Grouch, Therefore I Am" are words of wisdom. The Grouchlanders, those anti-Munchkins, sing "Welcome to Grouchland -- now SCRAM!"
Into the middle of this spectacle swoops -- a la the Wicked Witch of the West -- a helicopter with a vacuum attachment that sucks up everybody's favorite things. And out of it pops the villainous, extravagantly eyebrowed Huxley, played by Mandy Patinkin in a manner that mixes Dr. Seuss with vaudeville. He exults in his loot, including Elmo's blanket, and flies off. Continuing the Wicked Witch parallel, Huxley has a cadre of bug and worm toadies who carry out his dirty tricks like the flying monkeys of old, and he spies on Elmo with a closed-circuit TV screen.
Elmo's pals from "Sesame Street" come looking for him, but Huxley has them tossed in jail, so Elmo sets out for Huxley's mountaintop lair on his own -- a harrowing journey in "Sesame Street" terms, but fear not; whenever things look bleak, Bert and Ernie stop the movie and reassure kids that all will be well.
In a dark tunnel, friendly fireflies light Elmo's way; he faces down a giant pecking chicken that orders him to "Stand still like a piece of corn!"; and he gets rousing advice from a chorus of woodsy animals in a "Follow the Yellow Brick Road"-style number, "Take the First Step." He even gains the cooperation of the contrary Grouchlanders.
He spends an interlude atop a dump with the vampy Queen of Trash (Vanessa Williams, with a discarded Slinky on her head). She won't let him go until he wins a contest by blowing 100 raspberries in 30 seconds. Here he asks the audience for help. Two or three such participatory moments should relieve the fidgets.
Both Patinkin and Williams have big numbers, his a musical comedy style ode to stuff, "Make It Mine," hers a ballad to the beauty of trash, "I See a Kingdom." Neither song has quite what it takes to keep tiny tushes in seats. Patinkin's especially, despite his supple tenor, goes on too long.
In most other ways, the direction of Gary Halvorson and screenplay by Mitchell Kriegman and Joseph Mazzarino keep Elmo's adventures sparkling. Every so-called adventure flick for grown-ups should have such fully realized characters and crackerjack repartee.
THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND (G, 77 minutes) -- Contains a few mildly scary moments, all defused by Bert and Ernie, who interrupt the film to explain that everything will be okay. Area theaters.