Movie Review: I Am Big Bird – The Caroll Spinney Story
5 years ago, I was visiting a friend in New Jersey, but took a day-and-a-half to wander around a city that I had often heard of my entire life: New York!
While I did have the chance to finally see FAO Schwarz’s flagship store (where I chatted with a Muppet What-Not craft-person, via another Muppet What-Not!), and the Henson Alternative’s adult-puppet/variety show Stuffed and Unstrung (where I met Jim Henson’s son Brian in the audience!), I did find myself making a little detour to The West Side on Manhattan. The reason? I was hoping to maybe see just where The Children’s Television Workshop was located. Sadly, I never did find out “how to get to Sesame Street,” but I think it proves just how much the show still is a part of me.
I was allowed to watch Sesame Street at a young age, and had a number of Sesame Street Book Club books on the shelf as a kid. I also recall that my local J.C. Penney’s in the early 80’s, had life-size figures of several of the characters up on a high ledge in the children’s department. One of those figures, was Big Bird.
Though I was a fan of the more weird characters like Ernie and Grover, Big Bird was always a welcome character on Sesame Street. He also became the subject of the 1985 film Follow that Bird, which I still remember being taken to by my Dad on Summer Vacation, and watching the film with one of my cousins.
Deep within the yellow feathers of that 8-foot tall bird, is a man by the name of Caroll Spinney, and I Am Big Bird sets out to show us more about the man inside the bird.
Of all the characters on Sesame Street, Big Bird is the one that is a one-man show, but also the most demanding of Spinney, who often has to multi-task when performing. Something that seems so simple, as Big Bird roller-skating up to someone and having a conversation, is actually a combination of at least 4 different things.
After watching the documentary, I felt like I could relate to Carroll. It seems he is a person who often wears his emotions on his sleeve, but it is also that quality that makes him really stand out in my mind. His remembrances of some of the darker times in his life (after his first wife divorced him, he contemplated suicide), really make your heart go out to this man. Though even in his darker moments, deep down, he always seemed to harbor a want to entertain, and put his puppetry skills to good use.
Along with Caroll, filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker glean commentary from many different people. We get to hear Jane Henson (via audio tape), and even former Muppeteers Frank Oz, and the late Jerry Nelson. We even get some commentary by Sonia Manzano (Maria), Bob McGrath (Bob), Emilio Delgado (Luis), and Loretta Long (Susan), the human cast who I remembered from those days watching Sesame Street in the 1980’s!
Watching the film, one surprising person I didn’t expect to be amazed by, was Caroll’s wife, Debra. The story of how they met is so cute, but it also seems the two compliment each other perfectly. Debra supported Caroll’s artistic side (something Caroll’s first wife didn’t do), and also ended up being a secret weapon for the documentary. It turned out she recorded almost everything she and Caroll did, and it provides some of the most fun and insightful videos.
Some could easily say the film gets a little saccharine at times (even Carroll’s kids tell how he and his wife’s love is so genuine that many people think they’re faking it), but it seems hard to fault a film that to me, seems genuinely sincere.
Though the film does delve largely into Caroll’s role as Big Bird, it also touches on his role as Oscar the Grouch, the yang to Big Bird’s ying. If Big Bird is the more innocent side of things, Oscar is the more ‘grouchy’ side of some people, but that largely covers a good-hearted individual (almost like Grumpy in Snow White).
I did get a little excited when the film finally got around to talking about Follow That Bird, but it becomes little more than a blip on the radar, as other stories are told. Even so, there are plenty of other milestones that Spinney took part in. Big Bird ended up being one of the first celebrities to go to China (with Bob Hope!), and almost went into outer space (it was only at the last-minute did they find out there wasn’t enough room to bring the Big Bird costume).
One story that gets a little sad, is when the crew went over to Asia to film the 1983 special, Big Bird in China. During the film, Big Bird and Barkley the Dog befriend a little girl named Xiao Foo (portrayed by Lisa Ouyang). Sadly, on the day the crew was to leave China after filming the special, they were not able to say a proper goodbye to Lisa, whom Caroll, Debra, and the crew had almost become a second-family to…however, this leads to one of the best moments in the documentary.
Of course, a film regarding one of Jim Henson’s creations, would be remiss if we didn’t hear a little about Jim himself. Though not as active with Jim as other Muppeteers, Caroll and Debra do share some wonderful memories about him, and we even get to hear the story of how Jim and Caroll first met (courtesy of some Sesame Street-looking animation from Chris Siemasko!).
Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker, have crafted a documentary that does what I love best: give us an insightful journey into a wonderful human being: a person whose had his ups and down, but deep down, has a resolve and kindness that has touched millions of lives, even if we have never met him in person.
When it all comes down to it, I feel one of Big Bird’s lines from Follow That Bird best sums up Caroll’s life:
“Aw gee, I sure am a lucky bird!”
Final Grade: A- (Final Thoughts: “I Am Big Bird” gives us insight through the high’s and low’s of Caroll Spinney’s life, and opens up the world a little more to some of the most inspiring creative individuals out there. I dare anyone to walk away and not feel touched by what Caroll has accomplished)