Roush Review: Remembering the Visionary Jim Henson in ‘Idea Man’ Doc

Jim Henson in 'Jim Henson: Idea Man'

Jim Henson: Idea Man

Matt's Rating: rating: 4.5 stars

Early on in Jim Henson: Idea Man, director Ron Howard‘s admiring and affecting biographical portrait of the genius behind the Muppets, Henson‘s longtime collaborator Frank Oz recalls, “He was so internal and quiet that his inner life must have been sparkling.”

I can attest to that. One of my fondest memories is an interview I conducted with Henson in his company’s fabulous New York townhouse (dubbed the “Muppet Mansion”), including a visit to the Muppet Workshop, in advance of 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas, a terrific special that featured lovable characters from The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock (among others) all gathering at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house for the holidays. We had only been talking a few minutes when I realized my tape recorder had barely inched forward. Turns out it was set on voice activation, and it had only picked up my questions, because when Henson wasn’t channeling Kermit or another of his legendary creations, he was so soft-spoken as to be inaudible to a mere machine.

This self-effacing quality, of an unassuming and restless visionary who came most alive during creation, shines through in Howard’s film. Henson had the soul of an experimental filmmaker, always fearing being confined and pigeonholed by his groundbreaking success in children’s television (Sesame Street) or later, in the freewheeling musical comedy of the global hit The Muppet Show. “For my dad, time was ticking all the time,” says his daughter Lisa, a film executive and now CEO of The Jim Henson Company. Throughout Idea Man, the motif of a ticking clock reminds us how much he hoped to accomplish in a life cut tragically and suddenly short in 1990 at only 53. (I also remember crying while writing the words “Kermit has lost his alter ego” for his USA Today obituary just three years after our interview.)

Henson took up puppetry as an entryway to the young medium that fascinated him, television, beginning his career in the late 1950s with future wife Jane in local TV at Washington, D.C.’s WRC, gaining national exposure in the early 1960s as Rowlf the dog on The Jimmy Dean Show. His 1965 detour into experimental surrealism, Time Piece, earned him an Oscar nomination for live action short film. It reflected his own obsession with time, which may have been spurred by the 1956 death in a car accident of his beloved older brother, Paul. Fame and fortune arrived when he collaborated with Children’s Television Workshop to create the Muppet characters inhabiting Sesame Street for public TV, then got the last laugh when commercial American networks passed on the rollicking The Muppet Show and he took the production to London, where it would be sold successfully into international syndication.

Howard blends archival footage, including priceless behind-the-scenes outtakes and personal home movies, with commentary from his co-workers and family to tell the story of an ambitious spirit with a “whim of steel,” who transitioned into movies with The Muppet Movie and its sequels, creating elaborate worlds of imagination in the initially unsuccessful and ahead-of-their-time cult fantasies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. He kept returning to TV, most notably with 1987’s Emmy-winning The StoryTellera mesmerizing collection of obscure European folk tales.

“He was ripped away from us way too soon,” his daughter Heather laments, and just try not to choke up when Carroll Spinney as Big Bird sings Kermit’s signature song “Bein’ Green” at Henson’s memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Idea Man reminds us of how much we lost when Jim Henson passed away at the peak of his success, on the cusp on selling his company to Disney so he could devote more of his energies to future projects. But it also reminds us of how much we gained from his optimism and humor, living on to this day and beyond in those immortal felt characters so bursting with life and love.

Jim Henson: Idea Man, Documentary Premiere, Friday, May 31, Disney+