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Entries in I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story [2014] (1)


I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014)

Nesting Doll

It should come as no surprise that I was a weird kid, a bona fide generational anomaly. I never watched or responded to The Muppets.* Sesame Street was ubiquitous at my house, but the show only ever registered as white noise. For me, it was drawing, action figures, and Nickelodeon all the way. This has made growing up and growing old rather difficult: when friends raved about the new Muppets movie a few years ago, for example, I stood on the sidelines, convinced they'd been lost in the disorienting fog of a nostalgia grenade. And when the Internet suffered a mild hemorrhage following the announcement of a Caroll Spinney documentary, I asked, "What's a 'carol spinny'?"

I found out in Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker's lovely new documentary, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which traces the artist's journey from awkward kid to puppeteer of a global children's icon to legit icon in his own right. Spinney's is an inspirational story of following one's creative instincts wherever they might lead.

It's a good thing, too, because the filmmakers' delivery system is rather flat. There's nothing inherently wrong with LaMattina and Walker's approach, it's just the standard talking-heads-and-archival-footage approach we've seen a hundred times before. In fairness, I don't know how one might break the form in this case, but I kept thinking the subject deserved more innovation in his life-story's presentation.

In fairness, my issue may be familiarity with the Sesame Street doc. A few years ago, I reviewed Being Elmo, which covered very similar ground--including Muppet creator Jim Henson's making dreams come true for a shy, young performer. In that case, it was Kevin Clash, whose public controversies retroactively add color to a movie that could have already been accused of blatant audience manipulation. In I Am Big Bird, all the thrills come from Spinney's anecdotes, and those of his wife and colleagues.

Lucky us, those anecdotes are thrilling, and many are dramatized by clips from the Spinneys' exhaustive home-movies collection. Though many questions are left in the air regarding Caroll's first wife, we track what seems like every moment of his relationship with Debra--who has been his life partner, manager, and co-adventurer for decades. From a harrowing TV-special shoot in China; to wrestling with a professional life that kept Carroll from his kids for weeks on end; to a bone-chilling account of Big Bird's ill-fated trip into space, the filmmakers weave a colorful tapestry of life lessons and cosmic coincidences that connected me to the Spinneys in ways I never would have thought to associate with Sesame Street.

I Am Big Bird really clicked for me during an animated sequence demonstrating the elaborate mechanics of the Big Bird costume. It's a testimony to Caroll Spinney's balletic grace and perseverance that I took for granted the Herculean task of making an 8-foot-tall bird come to life--with neither eye holes nor assistance from digital wizards. The tricks are painful to even consider, and the feat becomes a point of downright reverence when one considers that Spinney has been hard at work on the set since the late 1960s. In recent years, he's pulled back a bit,** but his commitment to making this character real for children of all ages evinces a nearly spiritual quest to be a global ambassador of positivity and possibility.

If you'd have suggested thirty years ago that I would someday cry through a Big Bird documentary, I might've stuck you in the leg with my plastic He-Man Power Sword. Sure enough, I Am Big Bird didn't just make me feel for a man in a costume, it made me feel as though I'd missed out on something greater my entire life.

*Somehow, The Muppets Take Manhattan and Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird are exceptions. For decades, I've compartmentalized those films as not being associated with their respective brands. I imagine that's like falling in love with The Brady Bunch Movie and having no situational awareness of the TV show.

**This is partially due to a change in the show's demographics: goo-goo-voiced Elmo is more palatable to two-year-olds, I guess, than the relatively more sophisticated Big Bird. It's also a factor of age, and Spinney hand-picked Matt Vogel to be his successor in the event he ever steps down.