'Jim Henson Idea Man' Revels in the Surprising Enigma of Its Subject

Directed by Ron Howard

Starring Jennifer Connelly, Frank Oz, Fran Brill, Rita Moreno, Brian Henson, Dave Goelz

BY Tobias JegPublished May 30, 2024


Jim Henson used his mother's green coat and two ping pong balls to craft Kermit the Frog. By Henson's own admission, Kermit was very simple in design — a sock puppet, basically—— but it was the performance and personality that made him unique. These sorts of recollections and stories make up Jim Henson Idea Man, a documentary lovingly made by Ron Howard about the person behind The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal and so many more childhood classics. The film details Henson's life and the origin stories of so many of our favourite critters and characters.

The film opens with Orson Welles conducting a surreal interview in 1979, where he describes Henson as a "genius" and likens him to Rasputin. That depiction is more apt than Muppet fans may realize, as Idea Man reveals Henson to be a mystical, enigmatic figure. He's mostly known as a children's entertainer, but here we see one of Henson's first creations: an experimental short film called Time Piece from 1965 that has zero puppets and looks more like one of Terry Gilliam's reels from film school — not what you would expect from the guy who dreamed up Big Bird.

Howard has done well to compile heaps of archive footage, and there are a lot of unexpected tidbits throughout the documentary. For example, Kermit wasn't Henson's first star vehicle — it was actually Rowlf the Dog. And who knew that much of the material within Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie sketches were unscripted? It was just Henson and Frank Oz having spontaneous fun like two kids on a playground. Then there's the fact that Henson and his team first had success making kooky TV commercials that were eccentric and violent. The list of surprises goes on, but the big takeaway and persistent theme remains that Jim Henson was a relentless creative force, rarely satisfied and always looking for the next adventure.

So driven was Henson that it took an inevitable toll on his family life and personal health. When he got involved with Sesame Street, it became an overnight success and made the cover of TIME and TV Guide. But he insisted that his company immediately pivot to new, edgier endeavours. As long-time collaborator Frank Oz explains, "Jim was an experimental filmmaker; that's what he really, really was." The restless Henson was always taking on new projects, and his children are present to describe the journey.

The documentary portrays the Hensons as a loving family, but there's obvious remorse about his work ethic in relation to his marriage. Ron Howard mercifully spares us the gory details, and instead focuses on the "culture of affectionate anarchy" that Henson cultivated.

There's also no mention of the wildly popular Saturday morning cartoon Muppet Babies. And it would also be interesting to know the story about when Frank Oz broke ranks to join George Lucas to puppeteer his own little green celebrity, Yoda. Henson had so many projects that it would be impossible to cover them all, and the brutal truth becomes apparent: the man literally worked himself to death. It's a bittersweet ending to such a wholesome and heartwarming career, but unlike the multitude of creatures Henson produced, he was human after all.

In closing, we hear news anchor Peter Jennings announcing that Jim Henson had passed away at age 53. That was in 1990 and I was barely a teenager, but I remember that exact broadcast. It was devastating.

At the time, everyone thought that was the end of Henson's magical worlds — but, thankfully, his family made sure that wasn't the case, and they continue creating to this day. This sentimental documentary captures the first chapter of that enduring legacy. Long live Jim Henson.


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