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I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
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by Jay Seaver

"As sunny a movie as the bird at its center."
4 stars

There was another documentary about the man behind one of "Sesame Street"'s most beloved Muppets a couple years back, and even before it certain allegations (most later rescinded) were made, it didn't really feel like "Becoming Elmo" gave the viewer a complete picture of Kevin Clash. I think that "I Am Big Bird" does a better job of giving us a full picture of Caroll Spinney, perhaps because less is being held back, perhaps because he's had a longer life to draw from. Of course, it probably also doesn't hurt that this viewer is of an age that Spinney's greatest hits as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch hit the nostalgia button a lot harder than Elmo's.

There are still some things that seem to be a little bit under-played in part because they don't help the film's general aim of showing just how much of Big Bird's sunny, inquisitive outlook on life comes from his puppeteer. Interviewees will half-joke that Spinney is also Oscar, for instance, and it might be interesting to draw a line between that and the darker periods of his life. That one of the show's long-time directors apparently didn't get along with him is brought up just long enough to seem like more than an oddity but then dropped quickly. Granted, the few minutes these things get in a ninety-minute movie are probably proportional to their actual importance, but it does feel a little bit like something is being held back.

When filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker stay on target, on the other hand, they do a fine job of getting this idea across. Spinney is an engaging subject, coming across as friendly without ever seeming calculatingly ingratiating, and though he seldom if ever gives a name or label to it, he's impressively open about how he has struggled with various types of anxiety over the course of his life. Both Caroll and Debra Spinney seem like warm people who have grown comfortable with their own lives, and though this is clearly Caroll's story, even when the two are being interviewed separately, Walker cuts their relating the same things together to emphasize their closeness.

One interesting choice LaMattina and Walker seem to make is that the Caroll Spinney interview material is almost always related to his personal experiences. This may seem only natural, but it's actually quite an impressive bit of focus - for instance, Spinney could probably say a great deal more than he does about the development and evolution of Sesame Street as a show, especially where it relates to Big Bird and Oscar as characters, but that is almost always left to other people. Similarly, things that relates to puppetry, even that which is very specific to the characters he has been performing for forty-five years, are often presented by "Muppet wranglers" or by Matt Vogel, Spinney's long-time understudy and likely successor. It's a smart choice, allowing them to keep this interesting material in the movie but always making it clear that what is coming from Spinney is the most personal and important.

Not to diminish what some of the other people involved say, although sometimes the way they say it is just as interesting. I suspect I'm not the only one who slips back into a trusting childhood state when long-time cast members whose on-camera demeanor isn't far from the characters they play speak. Frank Oz is kind of fascinating as well - he's so direct, analytic and relatively blunt in assessing situations compared to the other people that the filmmakers talked to that the fact that he is often best remembered as the junior partner of a genius (often quite literally Jim Henson's right-hand-man) makes his a story I'd like to see documented like Spinney's.

The film isn't all interviews, thankfully; a fair amount of footage from the show and other archival material is sprinkled in. Some of it is kind of rough - the home movies are often jumpy and I very much doubt that the mid-eighties television special Big Bird in China was ever meant to have is footage seen on the big screen. The filmmakers do some interesting and neat things, though; a seemingly idle comment that "Big Bird's pursue isn't what it once was" because it's become harder for Spinney to hold his arm straight up as he's aged makes the audience ponder the contrast between the costume's still-vibrant appearance and the aging man inside (especially since Spinney can often come across as youthful in spirit despite his white hair).

LaMattina and Walker will occasionally make some pretty direct rugs at the heartstrings, although two of the biggest also make solids points about Spinney's talent and kindness. Big Bird is not the most complex character, which means that if the film's title is true, Spinney may not be the most complicated man, but the film gives the audience plenty of reason to like them both, especially since the kind of simplicity both display is really admirable and the details are generally interesting.

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originally posted: 05/21/15 13:43:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Docs Festival For more in the 2014 AFI Docs Festival series, click here.

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  01-May-2015 (12A)


Directed by
  Dave LaMattina
  Chad N. Walker

Written by
  Dave LaMattina


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