By: Addison Wylie
As someone who is a follower of Sesame Street’s history and a fan of Caroll Spinney, I feel I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story was speaking directly to me and other admirers who may fall in the same categories as I do. Kids may connect with Spinney’s Big Bird, but Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker’s documentary is meant to click with those who grew up with the child-like muppet; as well as with Spinney’s other creation Oscar the Grouch.
Because of that, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a undoubtable crowd pleaser. It’s a film that glazes over Spinney’s experience while an unstoppable sentimental score swells underneath, but the filmmakers don’t miss any beats when cataloguing through his career.
Caroll is an absolutely brilliant delight. I was fortunate to hear him speak at TIFF Kids to a room full of awe-struck journalists; all of whom have extensive fondness and nostalgia for Spinney’s work. All of those notes he insightfully explained to us are on display in the documentary, including the process of defining a character and his work on various television specials and films.
In I Am Big Bird, we witness Spinney as a timid dream chaser who was thrown into the wonderful world of Henson at a young age. Over the course of the film, the audience observes his career evolve. The film provides plenty of backstory on Big Bird, and the muppet’s miraculous impact on children. LaMattina and Walker also provide interesting behind-the-scenes information about the significance behind Big Bird in China, the disagreements between the puppeteer and director Jon Stone, and the loneliness Spinney experienced when operating standalone characters that separated him from his colleagues.
LaMattina and Walker are straightforward filmmakers and have made a good film, but I don’t feel as if I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is as strong as Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. Being Elmo allowed puppeteer Kevin Clash to voice his own thoughts and feelings about his past and his creative process. The doc was personal which gave it longevity and resonance. When we find out about Spinney’s personality and emotions in I Am Big Bird, it’s always through an alternative source – his friends, sons and daughters, or his lovely selfless wife.
The documentarians are letting us learn about Caroll Spinney, but the film is surprisingly guarded and slightly impersonal. Either Caroll had difficulty allowing documentarians to scrub through his life, or the filmmaking pair didn’t provide a comforting environment for Spinney to open up.