DVD review: I Am Big Bird

Caroll Spinney’s first performance before legendary Muppets master Jim Henson was disastrous.

bigbirdThere was a Kickstarter campaign to make a movie about a guy named Caroll Spinney back in July of 2012, which successfully raised $124,115 USD from 1,976 backers.

Who’s Caroll Spinney? Why, he’s the guy who, for over 40 years, has played the iconic character on the children’s television show Sesame Street named… Oscar the Grouch. Well, yes, he does, but he also occupies the costume of an internationally-known, eight-foot-tall, yellow avian creature.

The movie I Am Big Bird garnered some success at film festivals, so it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I had a chance to see it digitally (and, because I was too busy, I didn’t). Finally, this yellow envelope arrived in the mail in early August, and I got to watch the film.

I’m oddly fascinated by negative reviews of movies I like. Though it got 84% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (53 out of 63), those who were less enthusiastic suggested that it was a puff piece with “little sour to temper the sweetness of this portrait.” One critic thought the tension between Spinney and a Sesame Street director was contrived, even though Emilio Delgado (Luis on Sesame Street) and Bob McGrath (Bob) confirmed the conflict onscreen.

Those critics must have missed the part about his painful growing up with his father’s hair-trigger temper that he seemed to find ways of bringing out. This was mitigated by his mother’s introduction of puppet shows, but his “dolls” became a source of bullying by some of his classmates. His first performance before legendary Muppets master Jim Henson was disastrous. His early days on Sesame Street, aggravated by his failing marriage, were so bad he considered quitting the job, or worse.

When I was in college, I used to watch Sesame Street (the show didn’t start until I was in high school), and few things on television have made me more verklempt than when the human cast explained to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper, the shopkeeper on Sesame Street, had died, a programming decision based on the death of his portrayer, Will Lee. Seeing it again brought back that sentiment.

There were other less upbeat aspects, including Spinney’s loner status, Jim Henson’s funeral, and the Challenger disaster. There’s this story. And the movie told of the physical wear of being Big Bird, as well as the Bird being supplanted on Sesame Street by the Muppet Elmo.

Yet maybe the critics didn’t find enough drama because Caroll Spinney is a great guy. The story of how he met his second wife, Deb, is absolutely charming. His now-adult kids adore him, his coworkers are touched by his continued sense of wonder.

You should check out I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. If it lacks a sufficiently dramatic narrative arc, it is nevertheless a loving portrait of an interesting man.

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