Caroll Spinney is a living legend. Even if you don’t know his name, you know his alter egos: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. There’s a new (largely Kickstarter-funded) documentary out about his life and work — I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story — and it is magical.
1. What’s it about?
The first season of Sesame Street (1969) featured three regular puppeteers: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Caroll Spinney. At 80 years old, Spinney is the only remaining Sesame Street regular who’s been there from that first season.
Over the ensuing 46 years(!), many things changed on Sesame Street: it moved out of the projects, many new monsters (including Elmo) moved in, the human cast rotated several times, the target audience shifted younger, and many of the puppets’ voices changed ever so slightly (with new performers).
But through it all, one thing has remained unchanged: Caroll Spinney. He still wears the Big Bird costume, he still performs and does the voices for both Big Bird and Oscar, and he still looks like he’s having the time of his life.
I Am Big Bird chronicles Spinney’s life and career on Sesame Street, both past and present. It’s a beautiful tale that reveals the man behind the world’s most famous 6-foot bird — personally, professionally, and creatively.
It also breathes new life not only into Big Bird but also Sesame Street in general and might leave you wondering why you stopped watching.
2. It’s a documentary. Will kids like it?
Depends on the age of those kids. I mean, it’s about Sesame Street, so if kids (of any age) are or were fans of the show, then they’ll probably be engaged with the film. Some of the “talking head” segments might go over the heads of the youngest kids, but you’re never more than a minute or two away from some great footage from the show or of puppets.
I should note, though, that there’s quite a bit of footage that betrays the magic of Sesame Street and the Muppets. In other words, we see the puppeteers doing what they do and we see Spinney putting on and taking off the Big Bird costume. It’s up to you if you want to spoil the illusion for the littlest kids who still watch the show. There are also several emotional/painful scenes (see #5 below) that may be difficult to discuss with the very youngest.
3. Will little kids understand what’s going on?
Granted, most of the footage included in the film is from the early days of Sesame Street, so much of it looks very different from what kids today are used to. However, if your kids are familiar with old-school Sesame Street — from DVDs, the Christmas special, Big Bird in China, Follow That Bird, or other — then they’ll find a lot to love here.
There are still ties to the current show, though. The character of Elmo is mentioned, so he makes an appearance (but he in no way steals the show). There’s a lot of great backstage, making-of footage that shows Spinney playing the role today, so the current incarnation of the Sesame Street set is all over the place. And many of the on-screen interviews are old-school series regulars (e.g., Bob, Susan, Gordon, and Maria), so they’ll likely be familiar to kids.
If you’re a fan of the Muppets, Sesame Street, and/or puppetry, then you’ll find a lot to love here. The film includes a lot of never-before-seen footage from Spinney’s home video collection, some great footage of early days on the Sesame Street set, a heavy focus on Jim Henson, and some great interviews with Sesame Street / Muppets superstars Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Jane Henson, Bob McGrath (Bob), Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Emilio Delgado (Luis), Sonia Manzano (Maria), and Loretta Long (Susan).
It’s a fascinating insight to the creative genius of a true living legend and one of the original guiding forces behind the world’s most popular (and enduring) children’s show. Let’s face it: if you watched Sesame Street as a child, Big Bird played a huge role in your childhood. He’s the embodiment of innocence and pure love, and he is very much an extension of his creator, Caroll Spinney.
5. Will I cry?
Unless you have a heart of stone.
Admittedly, the film can get a little overly saccharine at times, and the wall-to-wall music often unfairly targets the tear ducts and overshadows the genuinely compelling story that’s being told. However, the film hits all the right notes and is a surprising sucker punch to the emotions.
If you grew up with Sesame Street or through the ’80s, it might just turn you into a blubbery mess. I hadn’t really realized just how central Big Bird was to so many defining moments of my childhood.
- We’re treated to the heart-wrenching scene from 1982 where the cast tries to explain Mr. Hooper’s death to Big Bird.
- We get to relive the Challenger disaster (Spinney was supposed to be aboard, but the costume was too big and he was replaced by Christa McAuliffe).
- We watch (and cry) along with Big Bird’s entire rendition of “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” from Jim Henson’s memorial service in 1990.
- The film ends (not really a spoiler) with an emotional reunion between Carroll and Debra Spinney and Lianzi Ouyang, who played the little girl in Big Bird in China.
Yeah, it’s pretty rough in parts. The only surprising omission is the emotional scene from 2012 where Big Bird’s nest is destroyed by a hurricane (an episode aired in response to Superstorm Sandy).
The film is a swift 90 minutes, so if you’re watching it in the theater, be sure to clear out your systems in advance. I can’t really recommend a good time to make a run for the bathrooms where you won’t miss anything.
7. How can I see it?
8. Is it worth seeing in the theater?
I saw it in the theater, and it’s great to see some of the footage up on the big screen, but I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely necessary. If you happen to live somewhere where the film isn’t playing, you’ll be perfectly fine renting or buying the digital version. Honestly, it feels like it was made for the small screen anyway.