Review: Jim Henson: Idea Man — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

This documentary by Ron Howard is a fond reminder that a new generation of careful custodians can, against all odds, find ways to amplify the fading echoes of powerful, playful, painful, genius.


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Jim Henson: Idea Man

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes


Director: Ron Howard

Streaming on Disney+


Few people shaped the popular culture of the late 1900s as much as Jim Henson, whose gallery of Muppet characters conquered TV, movies, childhood education, music, and theme parks — and ushered in an era of congenial anarchy that still resonates more than three decades after his death.

Ron Howard’s new documentary, Jim Henson: Idea Man, traces Henson’s astonishingly full — yet tragically short — career, from his humble beginnings as a college dropout puppeteer to his financial and creative apex, laying the groundwork for the eventual sale of The Muppets to Disney for a then-unheard-of $75 million.

As he’s done in his earlier documentaries (The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, Pavarotti, Rebuilding Paradise), Howard brings uncommon energy to the true-story form. Henson’s life story is propelled with a generous helping of vintage clips, from a series of alarmingly violent 1950s coffee commercials (one puppet actually shoots another java-dissing character) to his aborted plan for a chain of futuristic 1960s nightclubs to the career move that changed everything: enlisting his Muppet troupe to costar on the fledgling PBS children’s series Sesame Street.

Like many show biz legends, Henson emerges here as a painfully shy person; a creative genius who preferred to let his work speak for itself. Unlike other reclusive stars, though, Henson got to disappear behind his characters. The vain pig, the bombastic bear, the raving drummer, the kind-hearted frog — each Henson creation reflected a facet of the man’s complex, at times unnervingly contradictory, personality.

Reflecting on Henson’s impact — both worldwide and on their own lives —a re an array of longtime associates, most notably director Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?). Already an experienced young puppeteer, Oz was Henson’s co-manipulator of puppet characters nearly from the beginning. (It took two puppeteers to bring life to, for instance, Rowlf the dog, whose expressive hand movements compensated for his frozen facial features.)

Oz saw Henson at his compassionate best and his stubborn worst — up to and including Henson’s final illness, when he waited too long to get treated for an eminently curable infection.

Also here are Henson’s children, who, it seems, discovered that the best way to become close to their globetrotting dad was to join his professional troupe in various capacities.

Mostly, as the film’s title implies, Henson is offered here as an incurable innovator, a persistent perfectionist. His mind was a maelstrom of ideas not just for advancing the art of puppetry, but also for leveraging his success into films, theme parks and, he desperately hoped, a measure of understanding among the strata of society.

There is no sadder scene in Idea Man than that of Big Bird — the child-like, nine-foot-high avian Henson created to enliven the otherwise dingy environs of Sesame Street — standing alone in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, saying goodbye at his creator’s 1990 memorial service. Inside that feathery form, puppeteer Caroll Spinney can barely maintain his composure singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

The song was immortalized by Kermit the Frog, of course — a little musical interlude penned for a long-ago segment on Sesame Street. But now Kermit’s voice is stilled forever, and everyone in that sanctuary, from the bird to the back pew, knows it.

As we all know, the Henson Universe spun on after his death. Other puppeteers gave voice to Kermit. New Hensonesque characters have been christened. Henson’s successors have managed to keep the Muppet magic largely alive more than 60 years after the founder first sewed together pieces of his mother’s fuzzy green coat and glued ping pong ball eyes on the result.

Disney was never quite the same after Walt died, but his heirs managed to navigate the teeming waters that followed. The Three Stooges faded after Curly retired, but Shemp Howard was a more than worthy replacement. Jim Henson: Idea Man is a fond reminder that a new generation of careful custodians can, against all odds, find ways to amplify the fading echoes of powerful, playful, painful, genius.

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