Everyone loves Caroll Spinney, but no one realises it. For more than four decades, he has brightened up the television screens of children around the globe, and mirrored their crankier side as well. Sometimes he's inside a giant yellow suit. Sometimes he's crouched behind a trash can. Either way, he's surrounded by sunny days sweeping the crowds away, whether bird, grouch or man.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story helps redress his lack of fame in his own right, telling the tale of the person behind the puppets. A boyhood fascination with the puppetry (and a lucky break at an early show gone wrong) guided him towards none other than The Muppets' Jim Henson — and the rest, as they say, is history. Climbing inside a feathered costume, he made one of the world's most iconic creations. Channelling his inner grump, he fashioned another.
Of course, both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are as famous as fictional characters can get, their traits and tendencies easily recognisable. Less apparent is the importance of Spinney in not just giving them form, but giving them personality. An array of talking heads, including many Sesame Street veterans, explain how the roles reflect both sides of his temperament. Indeed, as the documentary's title suggest, Spinney really is Big Bird, and his green furry friend as well.
So unfurls 90 minutes of adoration for the otherwise unsung performer, as pieced together by directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker as a tribute from the outset. Given the nostalgia and affection likely to be felt by everyone who watches the film, there's never any doubt that positivity reigns supreme in this admiring and infectious effort. In case you weren't already feeling the loving mood, the sentimental score helps nudge you in that direction. There's nothing particularly subtle about the way this ode to a creative talent is put together, but it's all done with the best of intentions.
The film is full of engaging memories and interesting insights too; whether peeking behind the scenes of the show, revisiting Sesame Street's trip to China, or revealing the mechanics behind the Big Bird suit — and the physical toll it takes on Spinney, who's still performing even though he's in his eighties. The man himself shares his recollections, his professional highs interwoven with the rollercoaster that was his personal life in his younger years.
And yet, there's another person looming large over the piece, glimpsed in archival clips, who almost steals the show. It's impossible to explain the importance of Spinney without touching upon Henson, and expecting waterworks to follow. The intimacy of Spinney's chats about his time with his mentor gets to the heart of what makes I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story an endearing documentary, even if it is put together in a standard fashion. Who wouldn't want to spend time with the men behind the figures that defined so many childhoods?