I Am Big Bird would like its audience to draw that titular connection about identity on their own. Early in this breezy documentary, subject Caroll Spinney recalls that he finally keyed into Big Bird’s character when he realized that the giant yellow star of Sesame Street was a big kid, naïve and endlessly curious, a revelation the film follows up with an hour of footage asserting the same thing about Spinney himself. At 80 years old, Spinney has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the inception of the iconic children’s show, but it was the guise of Big Bird that he most intuitively inhabited, so much so that the film makes it pretty clear he’s going to keep wearing those segmented orange pants and bright, sunshine-y feathers until he’s no longer physically able to do so. Big Bird isn’t just a giant puppet—Big Bird is the closest Caroll Spinney will ever come to bearing his own soul.
This is pretty much the documentary’s whole point, and ostensibly it’s a refreshing one. It would seem there are deeper questions here about artistic creations; about where one should draw the line between created and creator; about how one’s legacy should be carried on; even about how, once a precious creation becomes beloved, the creation no longer belongs solely to the creator—yet I Am Big Bird rarely takes the plunge into more ambiguous, or even remotely troubling, territory. Instead, with an unabashed bounty of archival footage, interviews with loved ones and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, directors Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker frame their Kickstarter-funded doc in a very simple admiration for a man who seems like a truly genuine human being. Which is ironic, both because Spinney has spent his career behind a mask of sorts, and because much of the film’s footage comes from Spinney himself, who with his second wife Debra devotedly filmed their whole life—recalling, weirdly, Capturing the Friedmans’ obsession with the the personal chronicle.
And perhaps it’s a film like Friedmans that looms over the conflict-free tone of I Am Big Bird: With so much access to a family’s most (supposedly) intimate moments, one expects some toxic fumes to come bubbling to the surface, even if only for a brief, fleeting whiff. No, Spinney is wholly who he says he is, from front to back, and the documentary ends—spoiler alert?—on a quaint note of staying true to oneself. Sure, it’s an important code to adhere to, whether you’re a first grader adoring Big Bird or an adult watching this documentary, but it leaves no drama, no character arc, to be explored.
Granted, this isn’t a requisite for documentary filmmaking—one needn’t force a traditional story structure out of a life pleasantly moving along at its own amorphous pace—and I Am Big Bird draws plenty of compelling information from its insider’s purview, be it the mechanics of the Big Bird suit itself (which is so unwieldy it’s surprising Spinney never ended up with a gangrenous arm) or the oddly close relationship Spinney developed with Jim Henson while keeping the rest of the Sesame Street Muppeteers at a cool, professional distance. Still, somewhere in its well-constructed bones, the film wants that drama, clearly pining for something a shade darker than the blissfully functional family life on display, wherein every interview with Spinney’s kids—even though they were sort of thrust into Caroll and Debra’s whirlwind courtship, especially following a literally depressing divorce—is a glowing testament to a loving, engaging, doting father figure.
The blame may fall squarely at the feet of composer Joshua Johnson, whose score is a big friggin’ bowl of melodrama pudding, but the choices the directors make in how to best keep the film moving feel practically manipulative in upping the thriller ante without offering any actual stakes. The episodes are only that: Spinney once considered suicide when his first marriage was failing; Big Bird almost went on the Challenger shuttle, only to be replaced by teacher Christa McAuliffe; and friend and mentor Jim Henson passed much too early. Each of these happenings are ordered, of course, chronologically, but developmentally tethered to nothing, adding up to little more than the idea that the Spinneys are blessed and beautiful folks. Interspersed evenly between platitudes offered by everyone from Frank Oz to Spinney’s Big Bird protégé, the brief moments of gravitas keep repainting the same idea over Spinney’s already dripping portrait. We don’t even get a candid picture of a young shaggy-haired Spinney smoking a joint or something like that—the wholesomeness of the film, and by extension of Spinney himself, is almost too surreal.
While I Am Big Bird revels in the kinds of fairy tale memories anyone who grew up with Sesame Street would love to relive (Big Bird singing “Bein’ Green” during Jim Henson’s memorial service in 1990 is especially heartrending) one can’t shake the treacly nothingness of the film’s whole existence. Because, again, there’s no standard for movie-making that declares a documentary must adhere to very specific ways of being, but as a document of a good man’s life, I Am Big Bird only observes, respectfully noting the touchstones of the life without ever once digging into the man behind them—the man who once considered suicide, the man who pursued a ceaselessly strange vocation, the man who is nearly, unbelievably angelic in his positivity and child-like wonder—and rarely offering anything in the way of actual insight.
Directors: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Writer: Dave LaMattina
Release date: May 6, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.