The makers of I Am Big Bird were intent on tugging at the old heart strings. They wanted this tale of Caroll Spinney, the shy, inarticulate fellow who has commandeered the most famous of the 'Sesame Street' characters for four decades, to somehow represent all of the loners and dreamers out there, to feel that we, too, may one day find our big feathered friend at the end of the rainbow. Sometimes it works, and you may find yourself growing misty eyed, just like I did at one point, but by the end you'll be a little bit tired of the documentary's tone, which could be described as "melancholy majestic." Apparently, every child in the world is desperately lonely, and can only be made to feel better by the unconditional love of a giant bird puppet. Fans of Kermit the frog and Cookie Monster might beg to differ.
I didn't watch much 'Sesame Street' when I was a kid. I vaguely remember it being a comforting program on PBS. The puppets were fun, but I didn't care for all of the number games and attempts to teach me to read. I remember Big Bird as a tall, friendly character with a nasal voice. He wasn't my favorite member of the gang, but according to the documentary, he was the most important figure in the show's history. When we see footage of Big Bird at the Great Wall of China, we get the implied message: Big Bird is a worldwide phenomenon, just like MacDonald's and The Beatles.
We don't learn much about the character's origin - why did Muppet creator Jim Henson think a giant yellow bird would be so effective? What did Henson see in Spinney that made him think he'd be perfect for the job of making the bird walk and talk? And what sort of bird is he, anyway? Is he an ostrich? A giant chicken? Though we see a lot of backstage footage of Spinney walking around in his bird legs, half-costumed as if to show that he's half-man and half bird, this isn't the place to learn about the inner working of 'Sesame Street'. It's a celebration of Spinney, how he rose from his obscure, unhappy childhood to become, well, Big Bird. He also plays Oscar the Grouch, but his relationship to that character isn't as deeply rooted as his feelings for the bird. When he recalls the time some pranksters broke into a 'Sesame Street' set and tore feathers off his alter ego, Spinney nearly weeps and says it was akin to seeing one's child raped. Strong stuff, but over the top.
He was a sad child, bullied by other kids and occasionally abused by his angry, ignorant father. He found some relief in the world of puppetry and cartoons, and as a young man went to work as a side character on the old 'Bozo the Clown' show. He struggled through his early years, endured a loveless marriage, considered suicide, and then in one fell swoop found himself working for Henson, and then meeting the love of his life, a patient and effervescent woman who would become his wife and manager. Of course, the show has changed in recent years, aiming for what seems to be an even younger audience (two-year olds?). Big Bird is no longer the top gun on the street, not with Elmo around. The constantly chirping and squeaking Elmo is Jimmy Fallon to Big Bird's David Letterman. Not to worry, though. Big Bird is evergreen, a bona fide "Muppet emeritus."
As he enters his 80s, Spinney now struggles to wear the heavy bird costume, and has completed the search to find a replacement, a young puppeteer who seems to share Spinney's love of the bird. The people around Spinney seem respectful, and appreciative of his longevity, but their comments don't support the weighty tone of the documentary. Granted, he's somewhat legendary in the field of puppetry, but despite the movie's somber music, and its effort to portray Spinney as a kind of uncomfortable, overly sensitive genius, it's hard to look at Spinney as anything but a guy in a bird suit.
The moviemakers struggle to find a climax for their tale, and they find it in the story of Ouyang Lianzi, a little Chinese girl who appeared with Big Bird in a 1983 TV special. She hadn't seen him since then, and now, well into her 30s, is reunited with him for the documentary. "I've never known such love," she says, genuinely moved, and still strangely childlike. Is that the secret to Big Bird? Does he cast a spell on people and keep them as children forever? Maybe I'm lucky that I preferred 'Gilligan's Island' to 'Sesame Street'.
- Don Stradley