By Nathan Smith
As a critic, I don’t believe that it’s necessarily my job to tell you exactly what a movie means. Interpretations differ base on one’s background, biases, and life experiences, so red to you might be blue to me. I can offer theories and evidence to support them, but I can’t necessarily make you accept those theories as fact. I can, however, succeed at another job. If I can’t get you to agree with me, I can at least make you try to think for yourself. Recently, when most of my movie-going friends found themselves surprised by the movie Edge of Tomorrow, they usually said that Tom Cruise was to blame for their initially low expectations for the film.
“But I don’t like Tom Cruise.”
I’m not by any means a fan of Tom Cruise; while Top Gun is actually one of my favorite movies, I haven’t seen a performance of his in the last decade that’s truly struck me. As more and more people talked about their dislike of Tom Cruise, the more I got to thinking: do people dislike Tom Cruise because they actually dislike Tom Cruise, or do people dislike Tom Cruise because other people dislike Tom Cruise? There wasn’t an especially practical way to test out this hypothesis, so instead, I started suggesting that maybe Tom Cruise wasn’t as bad an actor as people thought, that maybe *gasp* he was actually a good actor. Did I necessarily believe this in its entirety? No. But that wasn’t my purpose. My purpose was to make those who bought into an over-sold opinion decide for themselves.
That being said, I have a few words to say about the movie The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. In the late 1990s, PBS and Sesame Street found themselves struggling to compete with a new kid on the block: Blue’s Clues, and more broadly, Nick Jr. While I was strictly a Sesame Street guy, most kids I knew dabbled in both. Looking back on the latter show, it hasn’t aged nearly as well as the former. While Henson and company went for the whole family, Blue’s Clues and subsequent shows like Dora the Explorer opted to talk directly to the kid in front of the television. When you’re young, this seems amazing. The people in the television can actually hear you talk! At an older age, it seems at best incredibly condescending, at worst incredibly creepy. The model must have proved incredibly popular, as children’s programming still uses it to this day, but it alienates a good part of the audience. One can’t forget that the parents are watching too, and the most successful, enriching, and timeless kid’s classics have spoken to everyone in the room.
So in 1999, Sesame Street decided to try something new out, and it must have worked. But it signaled a radical sea change for the greatest children’s show of all time, and a downward slope in quality. Despite being a box office bomb, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland marked Elmo’s continued rise in popularity, and he quickly become the character most aoften ssociated with the street. Even to this day, “Elmo’s World” takes up a significant chunk of each episode. I’d argue that part of this is because Kevin Clash, the man behind the Muppet, is an incredible performer; he imbues Elmo with an incredible sense of humanity, and sometimes even pain. In one moment he’s your best friend, the next he’s bitter and vicious, and in other moments still he’s sad as can be.
Even though Elmo in Grouchland heralded radical shifts for Sesame Street, there’s a potentially more radical message within the film- and here’s where I connect back to the first few paragraphs. While you might just write off Elmo in Grouchland as, well, “kids’ stuff,” part of me suspects that it’s actually a pretty potent treatise on property rights. Yes, you heard me- The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland might be a low-key adaptation of The Communist Manifesto. I don’t say this because Karl Marx scares me and I look for his hand in everything I do- I’m saying this to get you to think. So think about it! Elmo (who just so happens to be RED) loves his blanket, but once he goes to Grouchland, he loses it to a greedy landlord who oppresses the local population by taking their “stuff.” The grouches are kept so low by Huxley, played by Mandy Patinkin and his eyebrows, that the only thing that unites them is their apathy. But once their furry red leader arrives, they are able to come together, overthrow the “rich,” and take back their land- and blankets- for themselves.
Ridiculous, I know. But if you view any cultural object with the right lens you can find something. As I talked about in a piece published earlier today, you shouldn’t merely let others dictate to you what art means or doesn’t mean. If you notice a certain talking pointed recycled enough, maybe you should reconsider it. The point of criticism isn’t to tell you what to like or what to believe- it’s to understand other people through popular culture, to relate to them, to empathize. And many times, it’s a means for the promotion of alternative thought. Just like Elmo and his blanket, it can be used to battle conformity and oppression. But don’t believe me. Take your own word for it.