Think you know everything there is to know about Sesame Street? You don't. You might know that Frank Oz turned down an offer to play Big Bird, but you probably don't know that until a last minute change of heart by NASA, Big Bird was supposed to go to space aboard the Challenger. Or you may know that Oscar the Grouch got his voice from a cantankerous cabbie, but you'd be surprised to learn that a fire in his trash can almost led to Caroll's untimely demise. Caroll's stories are the stuff of legend. He has been a constant presence in our lives for over 40 years, his path weaving through American history like that of Forrest Gump. His time inside the Bird has taught him about the world and about himself. I AM BIG BIRD will peel away the instances in Caroll's life that inspired his creation of characters that influenced generations of children. And, as the yellow feathers give way to gray hair, it is the man, not the puppet, who will steal your heart. Written by
I Am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story is a big, feel good doc about the man under the bird for over 40 years. While Big Bird is arguably the best known animal icon for kids in the world, relatively few know the soul of that puppet, much less the workings of its animated presence on Sesame Street.
Caroll Spinney's story, as told in this documentary for all ages, is an upbeat survey of a life well lived for children by him and other geniuses like Jim Henson, for whom puppets were an expression of the highest creativity even when the circumstances are not as perfect as the kids' perception of Big Bird.
Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker do not sugar coat or dumb down Spinney's story: He was initially wracked with doubt about his abilities, his director did not like him for unknown reasons, and his role was alone amidst the very social other members and roles of the cast. Yet out of this isolation came a character that showed his humanity in ways different from everyone else, to such a successful extent that NASA invited him to fly with Challenger. That role's last minute cancellation spared Spinney's life and saved him for generations of youngsters.
The Challenger tragedy and his contemplation of suicide keep this doc from being too sweet, peppering it with the kind of reality Sesame Street never shied away from, and in the case of Henson's death, was able to turn the grief into a lesson for the kids.
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