Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I Am Big Bird

*** out of ****

I am a pretty big Muppet fan, but I never gave much thought, in my adult life, to the Sesame Street characters that captured my imagination when I was little. Big Bird was one of those characters. Compared to most children’s entertainment, Sesame Street creations had a lot of thought put into their personalities, taking child psychology into consideration.

In the new documentary, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, Spinney, the puppeteer who gave that large character life, reveals that its earliest incarnation was played more goofy and dumb, attempting to earn some easy laughs with children. When he put more thought into the thing he was playing, he decided he was “a kid.” Big Bird is clumsy and silly, but he has the curiosity of a child, constantly inspecting things and learning from them.

The documentary follows the career and life of this talented man as he discusses the origins of his success and friendship with the great Jim Henson. Beyond behind-the-scenes archival footage, there’s a lot of visual coverage of this to be seen, as Spinney and his wife loved to document their lives with home movie cameras. We get plenty of interview footage from Spinney’s family, Sesame Street co-stars and fellow puppeteers, including a full breakdown of the mechanics inside the Big Bird puppeteered suit.

It’s most important to remember that Spinney was not only responsible for Big Bird’s optimism. He was also responsible for Oscar's trashcan-dwelling pessimism. However, seeing Spinney’s personality in the interviews would never lead me to believe they would consider titling the film “I Am Oscar the Grouch.”

The documentary is professional, yet rather formulaic, which is really made noticeable by the score, which pushes that standard epic-triumph movie music sound in a way that collides with the humble personalities of the film’s subjects. Still, nothing changes the fact that filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker found a subject that was more interesting than I expected. For someone of my generation, it was like going back in time and getting the real background of a glorified mentor.

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