A film as warm and fuzzy as Elmo

I must admit I never paid much attention to Elmo, the red furry “Sesame Street” character. I preferred my muppets more feral, and with attitude, like Animal, Cookie Monster or Oscar the Grouch. They always seemed more interesting than the sweet-voiced and huggable Elmo. But after watching the superb new documentary, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” I’m a huge fan not only of Elmo, but its gentle genius creator Kevin Clash.

Clash is as endearing as his fluffy haired alter ego, and documentarian Constance Marks — with the aid of great archival footage — puts together a heart-warming profile with narration by Whoopi Goldberg.

Clash was a precocious Baltimore kid with a strange addiction. He loved puppets. He would make up characters, sew the outfits and experiment with voices. Clash was 10 when “Sesame Street” premiered, and for the young boy, it was puppet nirvana. His singular focus was to one day work with his hero, the great Jim Henson. Clash’s parents, who pepper the film with their own loving memories of their son, seem very understanding. Even when Clash cut up his father’s good overcoat to create a puppet, they recall being more amused than angered, and they were happy to encourage their son’s peculiar talents. By the time he was a teen, he had scored a gig on a local Baltimore station. That led to regular work on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster,” where he caught the attention of Muppet designer Kermit Love, who soon told the eager Clash “how to get, how to get to ‘Sesame Street.’”

But it was when veteran puppeteer Richard Hunt, frustrated with finding a voice for a minor red fuzzy muppet character, tossed it to newcomer Clash that Elmo was born. Clash upped the voice up by a few octaves and made him an endearing, always optimistic childlike character who hugs and loves everyone.

It’s hard to not get absorbed in Clash’s world of fabric creations and “Being Elmo” provides a fascinating peek into puppets and the obsessive talent behind them. There’s Clash’s pursuit of finding the famous “Jim Henson stitch” (an invisible seam), images of a workshop brimming with drawers of eyes, noses and mustaches, and a look at how hours of practicing small nuances of movement or voice inflections can make all the difference when creating the personality of a muppet.

While Marks does sugarcoat any personal struggles Clash encountered, especially when fame took a toll on his family life, the film is bound to make you feel as warm and fuzzy as a hug from Elmo himself.

KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at tulichk@aol.com.

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