Directors: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Cast: Carol Spinney
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Is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard of Big Bird? That’s the starting point for Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s documentary, which shows us the man inside the yellow-feathered suit.
That man, of course, is Carol Spinney, who has been strutting his orange-legged stuff for decades to the delight of kids and adults alike. I Am Big Bird arrives hot on the red, fuzzy heels of Being Elmo. Combined with the revival of The Muppets on the big (and now small) screen, there is something about these creations that continues to capture the hearts of modern audiences – even now, people harbour a genuine affection for the idea that there really could be something alive behind those glass eyes and hand-controlled limbs.
Revealing the truth behind the puppet, then, is an act that proves endlessly fascinating. The process, of course, comes with a large serving of sugar, as we learn of Spinney’s career, which began as a failed puppeteer on the road, until Jim Henson picked him up for a Sesame Street audition.
While Carol’s life itself is not as engaging as the filmmakers might wish, the discovery of how he operates Big Bird certainly is: it emerges as an act of Olympic agility, using one finger to move the bird’s eyes, one hand to move his left arm and every ounce of concentration to look a monitor strapped to his chest that shows him what is happening around him (because his head is located somewhere mid-neck, he cannot see a thing).
This bizarre piece of contortion leads to all kinds of amusing problems, as we follow him both on-set and on the road, from microphone faults to filming on the Great Wall of China. All the while, though, there is an isolation to Spinney’s role: he is cut off from the world around him, while the other puppet handlers can easily chat to each other.
Comments from Frank Oz and other Henson regulars reveal how Spinney’s personality is suited to such a lonely existence – he also, it turns out, performs Oscar the Grouch, another character who lives a solitary life inside a container. The challenge of growing old and having someone else take on your own role offers another curious insight into Carol’s connection to this eight-foot icon, although the absence of anything more dramatic means that I Am Big Bird relies mostly on good will and nostalgia to keep it in flight for its full 90 minutes.
It is telling that the most powerful moment simply sees Spinney performing in-character on-stage, singing It’s Not Easy Being Green at Jim Henson’s funeral. It’s somewhere in that gap between Spinney’s isolation and everyone’s affection for Big Bird that the magic lies. If nothing more, I Am Big Bird captures that with infectious, childlike enthusiasm.
I Am Big Bird is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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