Not rated. It's a documentary about the guy who played Big Bird. There's some mild language and some tough stuff to deal with, but it is about Sesame Street and how it affected the world. I know that the film probably never really submitted itself to the scrutiny of the MPAA, but most of this is pretty innocent. Caroll Spinney seemed to be a nice guy who really liked being Big Bird. 'Nuff said.
DIRECTORS: Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker
There have been a lot of these movies lately, haven't there? It actually might start here, with I Am Big Bird [sic]. I know that we are all Mr. Rogers crazy right now. I'm part of that whole movement. I'm talking about the viewers out there who need uplifting documentaries about people who molded our childhoods. I'm glad that I watched Won't You Be My Neighbor? first because that movie did a lot for me in terms of coming to a realization about what kids need. But I Am Big Bird kind of fills the same role. Caroll Spinney, unlike Fred Rogers, is a mostly an unknown. We all know Big Bird. Well, hopefully we all know Big Bird. I want to live in a world where people know Big Bird. By 17 month old daughter loves Big Bird. But what about Caroll Spinney needs to be told?
It's such a bummer that I can only compare him to Fred Rogers. I know. I just said the opposite two seconds ago. Fred Rogers was a powerhouse of a human being. The knowledge that his persona was mostly the person that he was is fascinating. Fred Rogers had his face for all to see. When he went out of the studio, people knew him as Fred Rogers. He literally became the face of PBS. He went on trial to defend PBS. Caroll Spinney, through no fault of his own, was hidden behind Big Bird. It was important that he did that. Big Bird had to be real to children and if Caroll Spinney vocally spoke for Big Bird without the costume, some of the magic would have been lost. So a lot of the story of I Am Big Bird is about Spinney, but more of it is about the impact of Big Bird. It's a bummer because Caroll Spinney is the reason that Big Bird exists. He's the brainchild behind this character. And boy, he is a delightful man. He's a bit off. The movie wants me to have that takeaway to a certain extent. He doesn't really operate on the same level as a lot of us, but that's what makes him kind of special too. Fred Rogers has the same things. For the bulk of his life, he's lived in the world of children's television. Like Rogers, he doesn't do it for the paycheck. He does it because he loves what he is doing.
It's so odd the parallels between Rogers and Spinney. For those not in the know, Spinney is also Oscar the Grouch. Both Rogers and Spinney managed to craft characters that encapsulated the positive and negative emotions that they dealt with on a regular basis. They both had really rough lives. Possibly the most crushing element of I Am Big Bird is the knowledge that his father was a cruel man. There is something broken in a lot of performers. It probably isn't a rule that some major element of a life has to be askew to succeed, but it does tend to be the trend in these stories. I wonder if there is something therapeutic to being both Big Bird and Oscar. It's odd that Spinney doesn't really have an adult character who has healthy emotional outlets. Big Bird has always been a child. It makes sense, considering that the star character on a children's television program should be an avatar for the viewer. But Oscar is simply negative emotions. I love that Oscar isn't a bad guy on the show though. He rides that line, to be sure. But Oscar is one of the heroes, in a weird way, of Sesame Street. While not serving as a one-to-one correlation, Oscar often shows how negative feelings can be dealt with without going too far. Oscar never throws temper tantrums. He never gets violent. He's just a grouch. Sometimes, it's okay to be grouchy.
But no one wants to be Oscar...
It's hard to divorce Big Bird from Caroll Spinney. I suppose the filmmakers are aware of that. But there is a mental break. I mean, I'm always sad when Clark Kent doesn't get enough screentime compared to Superman. Because Spinney is almost always in the suit, the movie strangely becomes about Caroll Spinney's thought on things that happened to Big Bird. Big Bird went to China. Big Bird was almost on the Challenger mission. (True story! That creeped me out more than anything else.) Spinney is there and people commented about Spinney's thoughts on the matter when things are going on. But these are things that happened to the character. Spinney lived that and has firsthand knowledge of it. But there are a lot of moments where I don't really know if Spinney was a good father or not. His kids are in the movie. They don't have a ton of screen time, but I could read some of their comments in different lights. The movie wanted me to think that his kids adored that he was Big Bird. But we never really got entire sections about their lives now. The movie was made as a tribute to Caroll Spinney. There are some warts in the film, but they are pretty minor. We know that he got a divorce. But the divorce is in there because he eventually met the love of his life that made him happy. In some ways, I Am Big Bird almost reads like a retirement video. "This is Your Life" kind of stuff. But while Fred Rogers fought against the establishment, Caroll Spinney is mostly a person who liked being Big Bird.
I liked this movie a lot. But I ended up watching it in segments (one of my least favorite ways to watch) because the movie doesn't really have a central throughline that goes very deep. It kind of gets packed in with one of my fan documentaries that I bemoan so much, yet tend to watch ravenously. I Am Big Bird never really gets close to making me cry, which is fine. But it also is just a feel good movie. Caroll Spinney and Big Bird should be celebrated. This movie does that in spades. I suppose my takeaway is that not every movie needs to be Citizen Kane, or in this case, Won't You Be My Neighbor? It's a strong film that does the job it set out to do. It gives a name to a celebrity that we should have known before this point. We get to know what makes him tick and satisfies us with the knowledge that he loves being Big Bird. It's the answers we want and that's why this movie has value. It isn't life changing, like people made it out to be. But it is heartwarming.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.