Caroll Spinney was always a little different. As a kid he loved to play with puppets, earning, from a young age, the kind of reputation most loners achieve through oddities and quirks. The new documentary, I am Big Bird, delves into Spinney’s life, touching briefly on his childhood with a loving mother and a father who had a bad temper. Most of the film, though, focuses on Spinney’s iconic roles as both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Jim Henson’s Sesame Street.
Spinney is a puppeteer — a guy who uses his hands to manipulate fuzzy, inanimate objects. Unlike most of Sesame Street‘s other characters, Big Bird is a heck of a lot more human than he is puppet, with Spinney donning the eight-foot yellow suit every time Big Bird comes to life. Spinney’s right arm reaches up into Big Bird’s mouth, opening and closing it as he talks. The crew pays incredible attention to detail, a strong theme throughout the documentary, showing behind-the-scenes footage that most people would never guess came from a puppet production. It really is a lot of work.
That’s the thing about I am Big Bird: You don’t think that you care about how a kid’s puppet show is filmed, or what societal implications various characters may have, or what the future of TV will be like. And then, suddenly, you do. You’re in your head saying, “Don’t talk to Big Bird like that!” Big Bird was the Mickey Mouse of his generation. The Dora the Explorer of today. He was maybe even more than that.
Spinney is now 78-years-old, although you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. Still spry and donning the big yellow suit, his eyes glisten when talking about Big Bird. Big Bird and Spinney are not two separate beings — together they’re just one big kid.
Spinney’s jubilant spirit is almost grating; you kind of want him to grow out of his childlike state of wonder — but perhaps that’s just envy. It’s clear in the interviews with his kids that he was a fun dad, but maybe not the most paternal of figures. Spinney has three grown children from his first marriage. In their interviews they smile sweetly and almost sadly at memories of their dad. He got to travel the world with his second wife (Debra, whom he calls his soulmate) entertaining everybody else’s kids. You get the sense they didn’t get the same kind of attention at home.
Debra and Caroll’s love is only slightly less annoying than Big Bird’s forever optimism. It’s sweet, of course, with old videos of the two recounting just how strong their love has stayed for over 30 years. And it’s clear that Debra is a grounding force for Caroll, keeping him in this world before he falls too deeply into character. The two are inseparable, rendering Big Bird even more human (look, Big Bird has a girlfriend).
I am Big Bird is a sweet film that would run too long if it weren’t for the fascinating tidbits about Big Bird’s fame, especially his most recent foray into pop culture. During one of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign speeches, he speaks disparagingly of government funding for public broadcasting while buffering the blow with, “I like PBS. I love Big Bird.” Sparking an international debate of sorts, Big Bird reemerged as a cultural icon, appearing on SNL’s Weekend Update to speak about Romney’s comment. In the segment Big Bird walks onto the screen and the audience cheers. When he begins to speak — in that unmistakable Big Bird voice — they go absolutely wild. They can tell it’s the real man behind the mask and the reaction is telling: Big Bird is timeless.