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November 13, 2017

REVIEW: Sesame Street’s Magical Wand Chase

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Matthew Soberman @ 12:12 pm

Back in July, I shared my belief that Sesame Street is the New Yorkiest television show to ever hit the airwaves. On the subject of the diversity of Sesame Street and its relation to New York City, I said “In New York, you can easily walk from Little Italy to Chinatown to the Bowery, and it’s all seamless. The difference in demographics is quite evident, but there’s very little dividing it all.” At the time, I had no idea that Sesame Workshop was well underway producing a primetime special embracing that very idea, the first Sesame special shot on location in New York in twenty-three years. So naturally, I went into The Magical Wand Chase with high hopes. What I got was a special that wasn’t the best thing Sesame’s ever done, but still had enough to make it enjoyable and worth a watch.

The show opens on Sesame Street, where it’s story time. Everyone is excited to hear Nina read another chapter in a book about globe-trotting adventure in a hot air balloon, but Nina has forgotten her book. Abby offers an alternative: using her magic, she creates balloons for her and her friends to explore the city. So Abby, along with Elmo, Big Bird, Rosita, Grover, and Cookie Monster, fly off for a brief excursion, but when a stray wind knocks them off course, Abby drops her wand, where it’s picked up by a bird, voiced by actress, director, and Scooter-thrower Elizabeth Banks. Thinking it’s just a stick, the bird takes it to use in her new nest, not realizing that when she makes some offhanded wishes, they magically come true. So now the gang has to follow that bird (pun definitely intended, as it is in the special) to try and retrieve Abby’s wand. They land in a park, and travel to different neighborhoods where people of different nationalities await. Some wishes gone awry turn the bird into an elephant, and later a human (played by Banks in a memorable on-screen cameo), making the search more difficult.

I guess I should start with what I didn’t like about the special. While I appreciate the concept of the show and its celebration of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, I wish they could’ve really explored the city more. It seems like they just filmed in different corners of the same park. I just think they could’ve taken the concept further. Speaking of being limited, while they have six characters to play with, it’s really Abby, Elmo, and Rosita’s show. Big Bird is only really in the beginning and end of the special, which is a shame, because having a full-bodied Muppet explore the city can make for some great camera work. Grover and Cookie Monster are also separated from the group, though they have some brief appearances where they mistake different food items for Abby’s wand (and then Cookie Monster disposes of the imposters). Also, this is more of a personal thing, but I find that the special relies too much on computer animated effects, where practical ones would be less jarring. The bird is CG (though the elephant is a full-bodied puppet, looking halfway between Horatio and Bozark), when a puppet would have looked better, and allowed for better interaction (though the decision may have been made to better accommodate Banks’ voiceover, which is understandable). And all of the balloons are also computer generated, even though we’ve seen Muppets in actual hot air balloons before, navigating their way around opening credits.

Now onto what I did like. Banks is clearly having fun with her part, and her on-screen work may be my favorite part of the special. Rosita gets a nice big chunk of a part, which is great, and long overdue for the character. And with Abby, Rosita, and Elmo making up most of the special, we do get to see Elmo be the straight man in some of the comedy, which I can’t say I’ve gotten to see before. (Though get ready to see a lot of Elmo’s confused face.) The elephant looks wonderfully odd, and the puppetry for the character is fun to watch. And it’s worth watching the end credits, which has some very pretty and imaginative artwork, including more beloved characters that aren’t in the special.

But what I loved most of all was the concept of the special. In a time where diversity is more important than ever, this was a great way to show off different cultures and neighborhoods and how they all come together in New York City. And Muppets in the real world can be incredibly fun. I only wish they didn’t have to cram it all into a 45-minute special. This seems like a great idea to run with. (Hey, maybe it would be a great premise for that third feature film we’ve been waiting for!) With a bigger scope (and a budget to match), this could be something really special. But as it stands, this is still a decent special, and one Sesame Street’s target audience will likely enjoy.

Click here to ask “What are the neighborhoods in your neighborhood?” on the ToughPigs forum!

by Matthew Soberman – Matthew@ToughPigs.com

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