Published May 28, 2015How much do we really want to know about the people behind our favourite muppets?
In 2006, we were permitted a peek behind the felt to learn (nearly) all about Kevin Clash in Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, and now we're introduced to another in I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story. It's a warranted celebration of a great artist and gentle soul, but it leans too heavily on interchangeable plaudits from talking heads and montages of old photographs set to soaring orchestral music.
The title of the film is more literal than you might initially think, as there's a convincing case made for Big Bird being a natural extension of Spinney's own caring and sensitive personality. After meeting Jim Henson at a puppet festival and then being asked to join Sesame Street, Spinney overcame some initial jitters about performing with heavyweights like Henson and Frank Oz by eventually transforming the character of Big Bird from a more dopey initial incarnation to the naïve but good-hearted child that became a beloved icon worldwide.
It's fascinating to learn of everything that's required of Spinney to step into the role of Big Bird, from first donning the unmistakable leggings to manipulating the mouth of the puppet with his hand and the eyes with just a finger. What kids — and likely most adults — don't realize when watching Spinney's seamless work at home is that he's glancing at a disorienting monitor for blocking purposes while reading his lines from script pages that are taped to the inside of the suit.
We hear from many people that love and respect Spinney, from his wife and kids to Henson's daughter to a man serving as Spinney's apprentice down on Sesame Street, but there are only so many times that you can hear someone praise Spinney before the words begin to lose their impact. It's better when the film lets his sterling work speak for itself, as when we're briefly treated to clips from a TV special filmed in China, the feature film Follow That Bird, and the heartbreaking episode of Sesame Street in which Big Bird is forced to deal with death for the first time.
There's also plenty of time devoted to how Spinney's work as Oscar the Grouch provided him the opportunity to portray the crotchety inverse to Big Bird's sunny disposition, but there appear to be very few skeletons in his closet from which to draw on for that role. It's telling that when the film plumbs Spinney's relationship with his abusive father or divorce from his first wife for some insight into a potential dark side, it finds little more than forgiveness and reconciliation.
That's not to say that Spinney's grace and humility throughout his life aren't worth celebrating. It's just that a glowing tribute like this can't help but eventually become as exhaustingly congratulatory as those you will find on any awards show.
(Blue Ice Docs)