The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY"

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You could go to just about any country in the world and show someone a picture of Big Bird. They'd almost certainly know who it was. The character has entered the pop culture lexicon in a way that very few ever do. The costume design, overall popularity of Sesame Street, and general kid-friendliness of Big Bird all play a part. Far and away, though, the biggest factor in Big Bird's success is the man who so vividly portrays him. That man is the subject of a lovely new documentary called I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

The film allows Spinney to tell his own tale, which begins as a puppet-obsessed child. A job working for Bozo the Clown helped pave the way for an eventual meeting with Jim Henson, who invited Spinney to come work for the Muppets. At first, he struggled to find the right tone for Big Bird, but once he stumbled upon the idea of playing the character as an innocent child, everything clicked. Spinney, who also voices Oscar the Grouch, quickly saw his creation become a worldwide phenomenon.

As one would expect, Spinney has a wide array of fascinating stories about his decades on Sesame Street. He doesn't hesitate to tell them. We hear about an ongoing conflict with the show's director, a personally-affecting trip to China for a Big Bird TV special, and how he occasionally cried inside the suit (once following a divorce, the other after performing at Jim Henson's funeral). Perhaps the most astonishing story involves Spinney being approached by NASA in the 1980s. Wanting to get kids more interested in space travel, they asked him if he would go on a shuttle mission as Big Bird. He agreed, but there wasn't enough room to accommodate the costume, so the plan was scrapped. Instead, NASA sent a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, and Spinney watched in horror from the Sesame Street set as the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker are smart enough to let Spinney reminisce in his own words, with no intrusions. They supplement his recollections with home movies, as well as interviews with second wife Debra and various colleagues (including Frank Oz) who have worked alongside him. The approach helps paint a portrait of a man not unlike Big Bird himself: kind, compassionate, loyal, full of wonder, and a bit of an outsider who's not always entirely comfortable in his own skin. I Am Big Bird shows how this magnificent artist invested the character with bits of his own personality, melding them together until you can scarcely tell where one ends and the other begins.

Spinney, now in his 80s, continues to perform as Big Bird. But he also has an apprentice, Matt Vogel, who has been studying to take over when he is no longer willing or able to perform. The physical demands, as we see in a section showing how the complicated costume works, are significant. Vogel hits the nail on the head, saying that, while he may eventually take over the role, Big Bird will always be Caroll Spinney.

I Am Big Bird covers a lot of ground in just under ninety minutes, so there are certainly things you wish could be expanded upon in far greater detail, such as the toll Henson's untimely death took on Spinney. But viewers to whom Big Bird has meant something and that's most of us will find plenty to enjoy here. The documentary is a wonderful, inspiring look at how the best art, regardless of the age group at which it's aimed, always comes with a special personal touch that makes it indelible.

( out of four)

Note: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story opens iTunes and VOD starting May 5.


I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is unrated, but contains brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.


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