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Jim Henson: Idea Man

Like many people of my approximate age, my childhood was heavily touched and influenced by the work of Jim Henson. I adored the craziness of "The Muppet Show"—which made it stand out from the comparatively bland other things being offered up as children’s entertainment at that time—and found myself relating to a number of the characters on a personal level. The eternally critical Statler & Waldorf and Fozzie Bear possessed an endless array of terrible jokes and an undisguised desire to be loved. My first flesh-and-blood celebrity crush (not counting Veronica from the Archie comics) kicked in during the “Muppet Show” episode in which Kermit the Frog and Linda Ronstadt made goo-goo eyes at each other, much to Miss Piggy's consternation. 

When “The Muppet Movie” came out in the summer of 1979, my parents took me and a group of my friends to see it. We made sure to sit up in the front row—I had heard that there was a scene in which Kermit was seen riding a bicycle. Since my basic knowledge of Muppet physics suggested that such a thing was impossible, I wanted to get a good look and see if I could figure out how they did it. (I didn’t, but that was soon forgotten when, at dinner that night, my dad chose that moment—unconsciously, he claimed—to order frog’s legs for his meal.) And, of course, when it was announced that Henson died on May 16, 1990, of a bacterial infection at the age of 53, it literally felt as if a piece of my childhood had gone with him.

For someone of my generation, the notion of watching a documentary on Henson’s life and work with anything resembling objectivity is an impossibility. Take Ron Howard’s “Jim Henson: Idea Man,” for example. In many ways, it is a frustrating film—very conventional in its structure, offers little in the way of any new revelations about Henson and his work, and leaves a lot of stuff out that might get in the way of the largely sunny narrative. However, seeing the vast array of archival clips that make up the bulk of the film—both scenes from his various projects as well as behind-the-scenes looks at how they were achieved—is like biting into one of Proust’s madeleine cakes in the way it unlocks one's memories of experiencing Henson’s work for the first time.

If you're a fan of Henson and his legacy, you probably know much of the story presented here. The doc goes from his childhood and first attempts at puppetry (inspired entirely by a desire to work in television) to becoming one of the key figures of the immensely successful “Sesame Street.” A few years later, he decided to spread his artistic wings by creating a new variety show that featuring Kermit the Frog, one of the most beloved of the “Sesame Street” characters, as well as an army of new Muppets, most notably future superstar Miss Piggy. 

Although rejected by all networks, he got an offer to produce the show in London, and it would become one of the most popular shows in the world before leaving the air in 1981. From there, his interest moved to the big screen, both with films featuring familiar Muppet characters (1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” 1981’s “The Great Muppet Caper” and 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhattan”) and new creations such as “The Dark Crystal” (1982) and “Labyrinth” (1986), received quizzically upon original release but which would go on to become cult favorites.

Watching the various clips, not to mention the recollections of such people as fellow Muppeteer (and future filmmaker) Frank Oz and Jennifer Connelly, who starred in “Labyrinth” when she was just a teenager, is undeniably a lot of fun but as “Jim Henson: Idea Man” goes on, it begins to drift uncomfortably close to hagiography at some points. In recent years, Howard has carved out a second career as a maker of documentaries, covering subjects ranging from Jay-Z (“Made in America”), The Beatles (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years”), and Luciano Pavarotti (“Pavarotti”) to a town attempting to rebuild in the wake of devastating wildfires (“Rebuilding Paradise”). This time around, he seems to have a genuine personal affinity for the subject at hand. As a result, he seems hesitant to include anything that might run the risk of affecting the film’s primarily celebratory tone. Maybe a minute of screen time, for example, is dedicated to Henson’s brief association with “Saturday Night Live” during its early days, a clash of comedic sensibilities that did not work out. 

Likewise, although Howard does delve into “The Muppet Movie,” “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” he barely mentions the likes of “The Great Muppet Caper” (which is especially odd as it marked Henson’s directorial debut) or “The Muppets Take Manhattan” at all. Towards the end, Howard shows how Walt Disney Studios planned to acquire Henson’s company just before his passing. However, he doesn’t mention the litigation between the two when the deal fell through, and Disney decided to proceed as if they did have the rights.

At a time when seemingly any pop culture figure of note can be afforded an insanely detailed, multi-part documentary, trying to cram the life of Jim Henson into under two hours means leaving a lot of stuff out that will no doubt frustrate longtime fans looking for new details about the man and his legacy. 

While “Jim Henson: Idea Man” may not break any new ground regarding Hensonian research or documentary filmmaking in general, it should prove valuable to younger viewers curious to know more about the man behind so many beloved childhood icons. It also serves as an instant nostalgia machine for their parents, many of whom I suspect will shed a tear or two during the footage of Henson’s memorial service. As is the case with Henson’s legacy as a whole, I liked a lot of what I saw in this film—I wish that there had been more to it. Oh well. To quote a wise Muppet: “Meep!” 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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Film Credits

Jim Henson Idea Man movie poster

Jim Henson Idea Man (2024)

Rated PG

108 minutes

Cast

Jim Henson as Self (archive footage)

Frank Oz as Self

Dave Goelz as Self

Fran Brill as Self

Rita Moreno as Self

Director

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