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USA 2015
Directed by
Dave LaMattina / Chad N Walker
90 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
2.5 stars

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Synopsis: Caroll Spinney has played Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for more than 40 years. At 81 years old, he shows no sign of quitting, despite having selected a successor who has been apprenticed to him for almost twenty years  From his earliest collaborations with Jim Henson, the film charts his Emmy award winning career as the unseen voice and articulation behind two of the world’s most recognisable and loved children’s characters.

I so wanted to love this film. Even though I was never really a devotee of Sesame Street, I was (and remain) a big Muppets and Jim Henson fan and the idea of a documentary that gave us a glimpse behind (or should that be inside, or maybe underneath?) the workings of those fabulous characters was very appealing. So it was disappointing that the film was largely unremarkable in its content. The clue, perhaps, is in the subtitle: The Caroll Spinney Story. He’s certainly a gifted and endearing man who has managed to balance a demanding career with a seemingly perfect marriage and family life. There is also no doubt about the joy he’s brought to generations of viewers around the world but, despite references to schoolyard bullying, a violent father and some darker moments of his young adult life, the story that we are presented with doesn’t seem to be extraordinary enough to make for a compelling documentary.

During the early parts of the film, I found myself wondering why we sometimes use the term ‘heart-warming’ in a pejorative way – here was a heart-warming story if ever there was one. But by the end, I had an answer to that question; without something stronger to balance it out, the sweetness becomes cloying and schmaltzy. (I feel mean saying that about such a nice man but there’s a limit to how many talking heads attesting to what a lovely, hard working and devoted guy he is can be sustained on screen).

Where the film has real interest is in its revelations about the world-wide power and impact of the Big Bird character and, to a lesser extent, Oscar The Grouch. There is some fantastic on-set footage that gives us insight into how physically demanding it is to play these roles and how complex a task it is film even the simplest bit of action on that most recognisable of American streets. These challenges are further highlighted in the sequence that looks at how they managed to make a movie about Big Bird in China. And, of course, the brilliance of Jim Henson shines through and the friendship between these two creative geniuses is very movingly portrayed by Big Bird’s soulful rendition of "It’s Not Easy Being Green" at Henson’s funeral.  It’s the emotional high point of the film.

Perhaps it’s an indictment on the contemporary world (or maybe just on me) that a documentary about a genuinely warm-hearted and loving man who has given the world many, many happy memories seems less interesting than one that exposes the darker truths of the human condition. But after ninety minutes, I found myself feeling that this documentary which sets out to reveal the hidden talent behind the yellow feathers ultimately conceals a more interesting documentary about the social and educational phenomenon that is Big Bird. In the end, as charming and heart-warming as the Caroll Spinney story is, it’s the Big Bird story I wanted to know about.




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