journalmagical01To start with, what can one say about a title like A Magical Halloween Adventure… apart from what it says about itself, I mean.

That is the unfortunate title of the new direct-to-video Sesame Halloween special, and you’d have to look pretty hard if you wanted to find a less inspiring title for practically anything. It’s not even so much of a title as it is a description of the contents, like the Nutrition Facts on the side of a box of cookies.

I don’t mean to start this off just hammering away at the title, but one good thing about it is that it suggests a new party game which you might want to try next time you’re bored: No-Frills Titles for Popular Movies. Here’s some examples:

Jaws: “A Really Big Shark Movie”

Star Wars: “An Exciting Science Fiction Serials Pastiche”

101 Dalmatians: “A Live-Action Remake of 101 Dalmatians”

That could offer at least a minute of amusement, which is just enough time to stick this DVD in the player and fire it up, and we’re away.

The situation is this: It’s Halloween. Elmo, Telly and Zoe love Halloween — although, startlingly, they don’t seem to know the first thing about it. But they get the idea to dress up in Halloween costumes, which leads to a rockin’ little song called “What Can I Be?” This song actually sounds more like a Bear song than a typical Sesame number — the chorus has that same kind of strange, ear-bending harmony that Bear songs always have, which kind of grabs you and twists your arm until you pay attention. That isn’t a criticism at all — I love Bear music, and this is a great, toe-tapping number.

Although, a little sidebar: They’re listing potential costumes, and this is Telly’s idea: “I can imagine that I have three sides… I have three angles, I’m a triangle guy!” And then when they actually appear in their costumes, Telly is a triangular wedge of cheese. Now, this is something I’ve just never understood about Telly, and I think it’s why I’ve never really taken to him as a character: Why does he love triangles?

It’s obvious why Cookie Monster loves cookies — he’s hungry, and cookies are tasty. That’s an obsession that kids can identify with. You can understand why Ernie loves Rubber Duckie (it’s a toy), why Elmo loves Dorothy (she’s a pet), and why Bert loves bottle caps (it’s a collection). But why would Telly love triangles, apart from the fact that the producers wanted to give Telly a “thing”? They’ve got three angles and three sides, hip hooray. That’s just not something anybody would ever feel. So I don’t get Telly, and I don’t really believe in him as a character, and if Telly suddenly fell off the edge of the earth and disappeared, I wouldn’t really care. End of sidebar.

So now Elmo, Telly and Zoe are all in their costumes, which leads to a cute film clip of kids at a Halloween party. They’re all in somebody’s house, and there’s a trunk that they’re all picking costumes out of. And I think I know a certain three year old who’s planning ahead for Mardi Gras, cause the first thing we see is this little blond boy in a bat costume, grabbing two strings of Mardi Gras beads out of the trunk, and saying, “I got the beads, I got the beads.” He puts them around his neck. A slightly alarmed adult woman says, “Are you a bat?” as she helps him with his headpiece. “I got the beads,” he murmurs, blissfully happy. Concerned about this disruption in normal bat-costume procedure, the woman touches the beads and says, “What is this?” And the boy just walks away, hanging on to those beads like he was born to wear them.

Now, that brings up the obvious question, which is: Is everybody just, like, completely gay on Halloween? Cause that’s what it looks like at this party. “AJ is a cowboy,” says the narrator girl. “Christopher is a pirate.” And the only thing you can say as a viewer is, I know I’ve seen AJ and Christopher out somewhere wearing those costumes, I just can’t put my finger on where. And don’t even get me started on the boy who’s working that Zorro costume.

“Then it’s time to DANCE!” says the narrator girl, and all the four year olds kind of sway around in the living room to some tuneless music, and you’re, like, I think I was at that party. The only reason I’m not in this video is because I spent most of the party in the bathroom, doing I forget what.

Anyway, back to Sesame Street, where Mumford the Magician suggests that the monsters go with him to the Magic Tricks and Treats Halloween Party: “That’s when all my magician friends get together for a magical party, in a magical place, and magical costumes, magical games, and magical finger foods! The magical cocktail weenies are very tasty.” Now, that’s a funny line, but unfortunately, after that preschool circuit party sequence, I can’t help but think that “magical” sounds like a code word. What are we really learning about Mumford here?

I think Elmo’s picked up on it: “Elmo wishes he was a magician so he could go to the party!” Elmo, by the way, is currently dressed as a “cowboy”, wearing a bright yellow hat, a lime green cowboy shirt, and an orange vest. And, honey, with that getup on, if you want to be “magical” tonight, you will get no arguments from me. Mumford obviously feels the same way, cause he calls the party and tells them that he’s bringing three monsters with him.

Now we get to the Magic Tricks and Treats Party, hosted by Gilda the Great and Murray the Mediocre. I do not have a bad word to say about either of them, not one. Caroline Rhea is playing Gilda the Great, and she is absolutely perfect for a Sesame special. She’s weird, and funny, and I adore her. She’s a little campy and fabulous, but she takes the puppets completely seriously — her interactions with the other characters have that kind of sincerity that you need to really make a Sesame scene work. She’s a lot like Kelly Ripa in the Elmo’s World: Happy Holidays special, bringing just enough guest star sparkle. I’d want her back on Sesame any day.

Murray the Mediocre is a Joseph Mazzarino character, and why Mazzarino doesn’t have a main character on Sesame Street I don’t know. He’s always funny, and he does the thing that all good Muppeteers do, which is to try to steal every shot that he’s in. He’s always adding little extra bits of business, and he’s just generally watchable and terrific. Some fans say that Mazzarino only has, like, three voices, but lots of Muppeteers only have three voices, and they do fine. Murray is the gruff, non-squeaky voice, and the gag with him is that everything he does is mediocre. Gilda does a magical dance, so Murray says, “Oh, yeah? Well, check out my funky Halloween boogaloo!” Murray does a funny little dance, and then they get all upset when they realize that monsters are coming to the party. It’s just a good scene.

Meanwhile, Mumford has zapped the monsters into a pumpkin patch, and for some reason, they seem thrilled. “Wow, I’ve never been in a pumpkin patch before!” Telly says, in a surprising display of enthusiasm. “Elmo neither, Telly,” says Elmo, “it’s COOL!” Zoe adds: “And orange!” For some reason, Elmo, Telly and Zoe act entirely as a unit in this show — thinking and acting alike in every respect — which starts to get tiring approximately now. They meet a talking pumpkin, who teaches the monsters about what you can do with pumpkins this time of year. This leads to another film clip about painting and carving pumpkins, and baking pumpkin seeds. Now, that’s all well and good, but this was a funny show with cool songs a minute ago, and now it’s just Elmo’s World. How did that happen? I want to see Muppets in costumes, not kids painting pumpkins. I love Elmo’s World, everybody knows that, but not everything has to be Elmo’s World. For example, this doesn’t have to be Elmo’s World.

“Oh boy, Elmo loves pumpkins!” says Elmo. “Me too!” says Telly. “Me three!” says Zoe. “Boy, those monsters sure are nice!” says the talking pumpkin. And then we just lie back and wait for death.

Luckily, now we return to Gilda and Murray, who are freaking out about monsters coming to their party. Gilda is pacing back and forth: “Monsters are mean, scary, ugly, icky, terrible creatures!” Murray agrees: “And I hear they don’t smell very nice!” “I heard that too!” says Gilda. And all of a sudden the show is funny again. From here on in, the whole special has multiple personality disorder. Half the show is this nicey-nice Elmo’s World thing where we’re pretending to be excited over the most mundane life experiences, and the other half is this funny plotline where Caroline Rhea and Joseph Mazzarino use words like “mediocre” and “boogaloo.” How did this happen?

Next, Mumford zaps the monsters on to a hayride. They all seem to be enjoying it, but what I’m learning from this special is that watching people having fun just isn’t as much fun as actually having fun. They ride past a scarecrow, and now all of a sudden we have to watch a whole film clip on scarecrows. “Elmo loves scarecrows!” says Elmo, a point of view that I personally find unfathomable. Then they mention the word “harvest,” and oh boy, you’re in for it now, cause we’ve got a whole nother film clip about harvesting crops. Luckily, Big Bird is in it, which helps, but it’s just Big Bird running around saying, Can you eat this? And little snotty farm kids saying, of course you can, it’s corn! And Big Bird says, Can you eat this? And the snotty farm kids say, Sure you can, it’s a carrot! And Big Bird says, Do we eat this? And I say, why the hell is this video all of a sudden about a FARM?

What the hell happened to Halloween all of a sudden? Hayrides, scarecrows, picking corn… This isn’t Halloween, it’s just FALL! Fall isn’t fun! Or maybe fall is fun, I don’t care, but I bought this DVD with the express intention of seeing — wait, let me see, here it is — A Magical Halloween Adventure. It says so right on the box! And here’s this eight minute segment smack in the middle that has nothing to do with Magic, nothing to do with Halloween, and, let’s face it, does not even resemble an Adventure. This might as well be called A Hayride Where You Learn About Autumn, or Let’s Watch a Farm Family Serve Salad.

But the harvest sequence finally ends, and you think, phew, that’s over, now we can get back to Gilda and Murray being funny at the party. And then Zoe says, “Apples are yummy!” And, oh, for fuck’s sake, here’s a whole other film segment about apples.

Luckily, once you get through the apple sequence, we’re back on track with the story, and from here on in, it’s all funny stuff, including two more songs, and a bunch of running around and screaming. It’s so much fun, in fact, that you have to wonder why it couldn’t just be the fun stuff for the whole half hour. There’s a good theme going about Gilda and Murray being prejudiced about monsters, and I don’t think that lesson is particularly well served by making us sit on the neverending educational hayride.

I suspect, actually — and I admit that I have no real evidence for this claim — that the original script was just a hundred percent funny Halloween stuff, and then the Sesame producers decided they had to squeeze in all this Elmo’s World style didactic junk. Mazzarino wrote the script — and like I said, the guy’s funny. It just doesn’t seem like the guy who wrote the clever Gilda/Murray dialogue would also write something as clunky as “Elmo loves pumpkins! Me too! Me three!” I detect the heavy hand of script editors who have curriculums where their hearts should be.

At that Halloween film clip at the top of the show, we didn’t see the kids stop their party halfway through so the adults could teach them nutritious lessons about why leaves turn pretty colors in the fall. When the kids have a Halloween party, they want costumes, and beads, and dancing, and Muppets, and Caroline Rhea making funny faces. I kind of doubt that Sesame Workshop’s research showed that kids who watch this special really wish all those Muppets would go away so we could learn some more about harvesting corn.

Half of this show really is A Magical Halloween Adventure — and for that half, it’s worth watching. I hope in the future that the Sesame folks get their heads together, and realize that sometimes it’s okay to just relax and let the Muppets have some fun. And if you can’t do that on Halloween, when can you do it? Now gimme those beads, kid, it’s my turn.

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