Jim Henson: Idea Man (2024)

Jim Henson: Idea Man Review

Jim Henson: Idea Man

During my childhood, as with many people of roughly my age, the work of Jim Henson was a major part of my life. “The Muppet Show” was my favorite show because it was so crazy and different from all the generic children’s programming out there, and I identified with a lot of the characters on a deeply personal level. Statler & Waldorf were two old cranks who could not stop cracking terrible jokes and wanting to be loved. Fozzie Bear had an endless array of terrible jokes and wanted to be loved. And Linda Ronstadt made Kermit the Frog eyes at each other on one episode of “The Muppet Show,” which caused Miss Piggy no end of consternation, making it my first flesh-and-blood celebrity crush (excluding Veronica from the Archie comics).

When “The Muppet Movie” came out in 1979, my parent took me and several friends to see it. We insisted on sitting in the front row I had heard that there was a scene where Kermit rode a bicycle, which seemed impossible according to what I knew about Muppet physics, so I wanted to get close enough to see how they did it (I couldn’t but that was promptly forgotten when we went out for dinner afterwards and he unconsciously, he claimed ordered frog’s legs.) And when Henson died on May 16, 1990 at the age of 53 due to a bacterial infection well, it literally felt like part of my childhood died with him.

It is impossible for someone of my generation to approach watching a documentary about Henson’s work or his life with any sense of objectivity. But take Ron Howard’s film “Jim Henson: Idea Man.” It is frustrating in many ways it is very conventional in its structure; it doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know about Henson or his work; it leaves much out that might complicate the mostly sunny narrative. But seeing all of the archival clips that make up most of the film; seeing all of those scenes from his different projects and how they did it is like biting into one of Proust’s madeleine cakes, it just unlocks the memories of your first experiences with Henson’s work.

You probably already know most of this story if you’re a fan of Henson and his legacy. It goes from his childhood and early forays into puppetry (which were motivated entirely by a burning desire to work in television) to becoming one of the key figures behind “Sesame Street” (which was a huge success right out of the gate it just didn’t make him any money.) A couple years after that, he decided he wanted to do something new with Kermit, who had become one of the biggest characters on “Sesame Street” and deserved his own show, so he created a new variety show around him which would also feature an army of new Muppets most notably Miss Piggy, who would go on to become one of the biggest stars in show business but at first she was just going to be another pig.

Every network rejected it, but he got an offer to make the show in London, where it would become a worldwide phenomenon before ending its run in 1981. From there, his interest turned toward the movies, both those that featured familiar Muppet characters (1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” 1981’s “The Great Muppet Caper” and 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhattan”) and new creations like “The Dark Crystal” (1982) and “Labyrinth” (1986), which were greeted with confusion upon release but later became cult favorites.

Watching the clips not to mention hearing from people like fellow Muppeteer (and future filmmaker) Frank Oz and Jennifer Connelly, who starred in “Labyrinth” when she was a teenager is undeniably fun, though as “Jim Henson: Idea Man” goes on, it starts to feel uncomfortably close to hagiography at times. In recent years, Howard has become something of a documentary maker himself; his subjects have included Jay-Z (“Made in America”), The Beatles (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week The Touring Years”) and Luciano Pavarotti (“Pavarotti”), as well as a town trying to rebuild after wildfires (“Rebuilding Paradise”). This time around, he seems genuinely fond of the subject matter. As such, he doesn’t seem willing to include anything that might risk undercutting the movie’s mostly celebratory tone; for instance, we get about a minute of screen time devoted to Henson’s brief association with “Saturday Night Live” in its early days a clash of comic sensibilities that didn’t pan out.

Similarly, while Howard does touch on “The Muppet Movie,” “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” he barely acknowledges the likes of “The Great Muppet Caper” (which is especially strange because it was Henson’s directorial debut) or “The Muppets Take Manhattan” at all. Toward the end, Howard shows how Walt Disney Studios was poised to acquire Henson’s company just before his death. However, he doesn’t mention the legal battle between the two when the deal fell through, and Disney went ahead as if it had gone through.

In an era in which seemingly every pop culture figure of note can have an insanely detailed multi-part documentary made about them, trying to squeeze Jim Henson’s life into less than two hours means leaving a lot out much of which will no doubt frustrate longtime fans seeking new insights into the man and his work.

While it may not break any new ground in terms of Hensonian scholarship or documentary filmmaking in general, “Jim Henson: Idea Man” should prove useful for younger viewers who want to know more about the guy behind so many beloved childhood icons. It also serves as an instant nostalgia generator for their parents many of whom I imagine will shed a tear or two during the footage of Henson’s memorial service. Like the rest of Henson’s output, I liked a lot about this movie I only wish there had been more to it. Oh well. In the words of a wise Muppet: “Meep!”

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