Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quick Film Thoughts: Being Elmo

©2011 Constance Marks Productions. Elmo character ©2011 Sesame Workshop.

Kevin Clash's rags-to-riches story seems like something out of fantasy or fiction: a young black man from Baltimore starts to create puppets for fun as a kid, and as a teenager, his talent finds himself rubbing elbows with Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan and Jim Henson, among others. You probably don't know Kevin Clash, but you do probably know his long-time companion, a little red guy with a high-pitched voice by the name of Elmo. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is a sweet documentary that shows Clash and those he has worked alongside and know him closest telling his story first-hand.

For the most part, it seems like a good portion of Clash's success is based on "being at the right place at the right time"- Elmo literally fell into his hands, after Richard Hunt got fed up with performing the character and threw Clash the Elmo puppet to see if he could do anything with it. (Footage of Hunt's Elmo is seen in the film- it almost seems like a Bizarro Elmo compared to the character we know now, speaking in a similar fashion to the modern if not a bit more Cro-Magnon but acting a bit more mischievous. A funny outtake of Clash as Elmo attacking a Muppet piece of cheese shows the difference between the two- even when Clash's Elmo is clowning around, he still seems like the Elmo we know and love). But it's also very clear that Clash would not have gotten as far as he has if it were not for his natural talent. Seeing him help train Muppeteers for the French version of Sesame Street, you can clearly see this as he gives little bits of advice to them: keep the puppet's mouth open a little to make it look like they're smiling. When someone is talking to them, have them look inquisitively and nod. If the puppet has to scratch its head, have its head move down a bit so the rod on the arm can't be seen on-camera. It's seems so complicated, but Clash is somehow able to make it second nature.

You can't help but end up with a smile on your face when this film ends. The life of Kevin Clash (and Elmo) is (thankfully) not one filled with controversy or scandal*, but it does have his complications: Elmo's rise to fame was so sudden and made Clash so busy that he for the most part was literally not able to see his daughter grow up. But he does manage to give her a very sweet send-off when she turns 16 before she heads off to college- not surprisingly, with a little help from Elmo. Seeing this, and the way children react to Elmo, seems to show the natural talent that Clash has. Clash states that he feels Elmo represents love, and it's clear to see this.

Some people think that Elmo ruined Sesame Street, but Being Elmo seems to show both the amazing life story of Kevin Clash and the "Elmo" of Elmo. Both are hard to describe in words. Elmo clearly seems to be both the opposite of Kevin Clash's personality but also an extension of him- given his high-pitched voice and enthusiasm, it's possible he can represent the child in Clash and allows him to let it out. Kevin Clash himself was self-taught, but then was lucky enough to become a part of Jim Henson's inner circle. No one will be able to replace or overshadow the genius that was Jim Henson, but as far as puppeteers go, it's possible that Clash is the closest thing to a second-generation Henson: he was literally raised on Jim's creations and, like Henson himself, decided to experiment with puppets and ended up giving a voice and a personality to a character who, much like Henson's legendary Kermit the Frog, serves today as one of Sesame Street and Muppet characters's most famous faces, entertaining adults and (especially) children just by being himself. For Kevin Clash, the answer to "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" was "just be yourself." Both of them seem to have clearly benefited from it. Being Elmo is a wonderful feel-good film, and is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for fans of Sesame Street, Muppets, Jim Henson, or anyone who just wants to see an amazingly sweet true story. Elmo loves you (as he loves to remind us), and we love him for it.

*UPDATE (February 28, 2013) - When I originally wrote this review nearly a year ago, I wrote that "[t]he life of Kevin Clash (and Elmo) is (thankfully) not one filled with controversy or scandal". Sadly, as the events that led to Clash's resignation from Sesame Street revealed, this is no longer the case. Being Elmo remains an incredibly sweet documentary about how one man made his dreams come true, but rewatching it in the wake of how those dreams sadly came to an end is bittersweet, as it shows what a great loss to the worlds of Sesame Street, puppeteering, and entertainment in general the departure of Kevin Clash is.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ad Bowl XLVI Preview

Last year, I did what basically everyone does and did a recap of the ads of the Big Trademarked Sporting Event. This year, a good number of advertisers are taking advantage of the Internet and releasing their ads early in order to create social buzz. In my opinion, this sort of defeats the purpose, but as long as they're doing it, let's take a look at some of the fare. (In a way, this sort of feeds into what they hope will happen, as I myself am helping to create buzz and technically offering free advertising. That's consumerism for you.)

A lot of ads go for memorable names (including a number I’ll show off here), and this one is no exception…though its familiar faces are a little more “animated” than most. MetLife goes for nostalgia and diversity while delivering a message of insurance for everyone, by bringing long-time mascot Snoopy and his friends together with a bunch of classic cartoon characters. The best gag is the multiple blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances by the always-elusive Waldo.

Interestingly, save for the famed beagle and his entourage themselves (owned by the Peanuts Worldwide division of Iconix), all the characters in this ad are owned by only two companies: Time Warner (Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera) and Classic Media. Shows how diverse those two companies’s portfolios are.

The Coke driver who prefers Pepsi- and the mishaps that ensue because of it- is a familiar theme Pepsi first used in a 1996 spot which was the winner of that year’s USA TODAY Ad Meter, as well as the winner of a 20th-anniversary Ad Meter best-of in 2008. With “Your Cheatin’ Heart” once again as his theme song, the hapless driver returns, now preferring the low-cal Pepsi Max to his own Coke Zero…and a retired talk show host ends up getting involved.

Marketers would kill for a spot during the big game, and in Priceline’s case it’s quite literal. The highly publicized final appearance of William Shatner’s Negotiator, the spokesman literally goes out with a bang as his message of savings lives on. Would we expect anything less from the usually-extravagant Shatner? (Sadly, the crisis leaves no time for his jingle, sung by one of my “pals” Laura Dickinson, she of the heroic platypus “Perry” sting and other female vocals on Phineas and Ferb. And yes, I can link anything to Phineas and Ferb. They’re my Kevin Bacon.)

Making fun of what’s popular is one tried-and-true ad tactic, and Audi uses it here taking on the whole vampire craze. Whatever these vampires are, however, they aren’t related to Mr. Cullen, given their reaction to the lights…which is more in line with your run-of-the-mill bloodsucker.

Alongside joining the other companies who are showing their ads early online to create social buzz, Coca-Cola is using one of their most famous game-day icons- the polar bears- to add an extra social-media buzz for the large number of folks who (like myself) will be online during the game. Two animated polar bears- one a fan of the Giants clad in a red scarf, the other in Patriots grey- will be watching the game live and reacting accordingly to the action both during the game and the commercials. (During the Pepsi ads, they’ll fall asleep). To tie into and promote the Polar Bowl website, Coke has two ads set up, one of which, which features a fan of whichever team is behind at that time showing off his own skills during a break in the action, has two versions ready to go depending on which team is losing at the time. Seeing as I’m rooting for the Giants, I’ve decided to show the version starring the Giants bear here.

Volkswagen’s teaser for this spot, featuring dogs barking John Williams’s Imperial March, implied that Star Wars would return as a theme this year alongside dogs. Indeed, VW’s spot this year, featuring the new Beetle, has both…though not how’d you would expect it to. Canine exercise is on display here…though last year’s pint-sized Sith Lord makes a surprise appearance of his own.

Given that the Peacock Network is running the game this year, perhaps it’s not surprising that one of their biggest stars is starring in one of the spots. In my personal favorite of the ads that have been revealed so far, the former Mr. Must See TV himself discovers that fame can’t get him everything, and tries to use what he does have to get his hands on a new Acura. Given his fame, talent, and especially money, nothing could stop him…except maybe another familiar NBC icon.

Another star-studded car spot whose teaser got a lot of buzz, Matthew Broderick proves that he’s still got a bit of childlike spirit in him, just like his famed early role of Ferris Bueller. Matthew “saves Ferris” by having a day off of his own. I know he’s disliked nowadays for his creationist beliefs, but it’s a shame they couldn’t have at least gotten Ben Stein to do a cameo. (You may recognize actor Brian Stephanek, who played the quirky janitor Arwin on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, as Matthew’s agent. Then again, you may not.)

Who knew “Mean” Joe Greene was still around? The Steeler probably best known for his iconic Coke ad than anything he ever did on the field pokes fun at his own famous ad here alongside Amy Sedaris.

Let’s end our preview with a tried-and-true game day winner: good old fashioned comedy. Taking a page from Doritos’s playbook which led to two of the past three USA Today Ad Bowl winners (last year’s was a tie with long-time champ Bud Light), Chevy called for submissions for their spot. This winning ad is very much in line with classic Bud Light and Doritos spots, just goofy comedy thanks to a case of a graduate who thinks he’s getting something more than he really is.