Mushy at times but likable all over, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” profiles the little-known puppeteer who, for 45 years, has inhabited the costume and supplied the voice and spirit of the popular yellow “Sesame Street” character.
Combining interviews, home archival material, performance footage and animation, filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker cover the life and world of Spinney, who plays Oscar the Grouch as well as Big Bird on the long-running children’s show. They also reveal how Spinney has infused his personal brand of melancholy optimism into his characters, giving them distinct emotional appeal.
Having performed on shows such as “Bozo’s Big Top,” Spinney got the career boost of a lifetime when Muppets creator Jim Henson saw his performance at a puppetry festival. In 1969, Spinney began playing Big Bird, the happy-looking, slightly goofy 8-foot-tall costar of the new public-TV show “Sesame Street.” Big Bird became a sensation who dined with dignitaries, appeared on game shows, and received a Library of Congress medal.
History, personal stories, and puppetry stars, including Frank Oz and the late Henson, fill the movie.
Subjects include Spinney’s relationship with his abusive father and supportive mother; Spinney’s friendship with Henson; and how a woman named Debra became Spinney’s true love.
We see footage of Big Bird’s trip to China with Bob Hope and of Big Bird’s 2012 appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” The latter occurred after presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated, “I love Big Bird,” while at the same time advocating a funding cut for PBS.
Big Bird was also slated to ride on the Challenger, but NASA nixed that plan because his costume was too big. The year was 1986. The space shuttle exploded after takeoff.
The film sometimes gets sappy, especially on the music front, and the praise its interviewees issue for Spinney borders on overload. The abundance of story tributaries results in underdeveloped elements.
But Spinney himself is genuine and fascinating, and the filmmakers have weaved his experiences and all things Muppet into a thoroughly enjoyable documentary about a man, some puppets, and the ability of popular culture, no matter how feathery, to touch lives.
Especially interesting are the accounts of how Big Bird is a puppet version of Spinney – a sunny childlike creature with hints of sadness and a tendency to be slightly out of step with the world.
As for Oscar the Grouch, he, too, is a loner with a wounded quality, Spinney says.
A passage on the mechanics of Big Bird provides an enlightening look at Muppetry. The physical things Spinney must do inside his heavy costume require impressive strength and endurance.
That hardly means that the 81-year-old Spinney, despite having chosen a likely successor (understudy Matt Vogel), will soon be vacating the nest. “My child” is how he describes Big Bird. To retire would mean relinquishing something treasured.
A film about a Muppet character may not sound like satisfying viewing for grownups, but this documentary, thanks to its subject, indeed delivers on that note.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Starring: Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney, Frank Oz, Matt Vogel
Written by: Dave LaMattina
Directed by: Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes