WARNING: There’s a MONSTER at the end of this review! And worse, there are spoilers! Oh, I am so scared!
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 2020 has been pretty scary. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives across the globe as scientists race to develop a vaccine. People are losing their jobs in droves, forcing many to wonder if there’ll even be a place for them in the workforce when all this is over. Racial and political issues have provoked mass protests, with some tragically ending in violence. Climate change continues to jeopardize the future of the planet. America is grappling with an election that could decide the course of the nation for generations to come. This is a year that has made even the most stout-hearted person want to run under the covers and hide until Easter. And like they’ve done countless times before, Sesame Street is here for us with “The Monster at the End of This Story,” an animated special that comes at the perfect time.
Obviously, doing a straightforward adaptation of “The Monster at the End of This Book” would be repetitive and, well… short. And while it is faithful to the book in some ways, in order to pad the story out for half an hour, our hero Grover is joined by Elmo, as well as his pals Cookie Monster, Rosita, and Abby Cadabby as they discuss how they get through their fears and anxieties. What makes this work so well is that they never try to dismiss his fear (though Elmo does offer some more positive theories like the monster could be a new friend), but they take his worry seriously and offer him ways to try and build up his confidence as he faces the unknown. It shows viewers not only how to handle fear, but why it’s so important to accept the fears and help them get through them as well. We’re all in this together, and the person you help today could help you tomorrow.
But of course, Grover’s imagination has a tendency to run away with him, so throughout the special, he continues to make attempts to stop or redirect it so that he can avoid his inevitable fate. And that’s where things get really fun. A particularly memorable moment comes when he decides to rewind the special back to the beginning, only to go back into his own past to moments when he overcame his fears of riding a bicycle without the training wheels (meaning that Grover can do something that I, a grown adult, have still yet to master) and discovering the source of a mysterious noise.
Not only is it cute to see the designs of an even younger Grover, but we also get the rare chance to see Grover’s Mommy, voiced masterfully by Stephanie D’Abruzzo. She has this uncanny ability to capture the essence of the character whose mother she happens to be performing (like Grover, Cookie Monster, or Bert) and somehow make it her own. And here, she not only nails Grover’s syntax, but also brings the maturity needed to guide the young monster through his problems, offering love and support along the way.
(Just a reminder that there’s a monster at the end of this review. If you’re afraid of monsters, now would be a good time to find something else to read. Maybe a celebration of “Rubber Duckie’s” fiftieth anniversary would do the trick? I don’t think there are any monsters in that one.)
With that emotional boost and his friends beside him, Grover finally meets the title character. And if you’ve read the book, you know where this is going. Surprise, surprise, Grover is indeed The Monster at the End of This Story, reflected in a mirror placed there by an illustrator’s hand. He celebrates with a musical number (something he admits early on he can’t resist) with his pals. And that’s where you really notice what makes the animated medium different from live-action puppetry.
I was conflicted about the choice to make this animated rather than a traditional puppet project, while still using the puppeteers to perform the voices. It certainly made me appreciate the fact that puppetry is far more than just a voice. It felt like much of this were just copies of the characters I had come to love; missing how the characters move or just comport themselves. That being said, animation does have some advantages. We can actually see the characters dance, legs included, and get to do things that might not be easy if they were the puppets. It’s much easier for Grover to build a brick wall or tie the screen up with string if he’s a cartoon rather than on a physical set. Ultimately, making this special animated was probably the right choice, paying homage to the illustration style of the book while still giving the characters room to play around.
All in all, this is a lovely, creative special that manages to pack a lot into its runtime. True to its inspiration, there’s lots of meta humor, while still having a very emotional core and valuable knowledge. How often do you see a character talking directly to the viewer, time travel, a Scooby-Doo-esque sequence of monsters running through different doors, and multiple original songs in a half-hour streaming special? Or better yet, a show that tells you it’s okay to be scared, but that shouldn’t stop you from exploring and trying new things? Not very often, I bet. But it’s just another day on Sesame Street. And in 2020, that’s just what we need.
(I told you there was a monster at the end of this review. And hasn’t it been a while since we’ve seen Frazzle?)
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by Matthew Soberman