Jim Henson: Idea Man - Ron Howard documentary


For Jim Henson fans, the new Ron Howard documentary out next month should be a must-see

"Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It bosses the enzymes, directs the pineal gland, plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to Film is more Film." - Frank Capra

I don’t need to tell you that Jim Henson’s work is ubiquitous and beloved, foundational to childhood across several generations of “Sesame Street” watchers and stretching far beyond. It’s so important to us that when one of his creations, Elmo, “asked” an innocuous question about people’s mental state on social media this winter, the responses seemed … well, it was a lot.

Clearly, his puppets and Muppets and stories and sense of humor do not lose their power with time. But to everyone other than Muppet obsessives, Henson the artist is still a bit shadowy. Good news: Now we have “Jim Henson Idea Man” (on Disney+), a tribute to the artist and a treasure trove of archival footage and interviews about his work and life. Though it borders on hagiography, it’s not blind to Henson’s faults, and it boasts a flair for the unexpected.

The film, directed by Ron Howard, starts with Henson and two of his Muppet friends, Fozzie Bear and Kermit the Frog — Henson’s alter ego — being interviewed on TV by none other than Orson Welles. In his sonorous baritone, Welles calls Henson “Rasputin, as an Eagle Scout.” The movie sets out to show what he meant.

A few years ago, Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (for rent on major platforms) — also very much worth watching — filled in some of the story, with digressions to illustrate the zany, hilariously violent sense of absurdist humor that Henson brought to his early commercial work.

“Jim Henson Idea Man” spends longer in the same territory, while focusing on Henson’s life (he died in 1990 at 53), his creative collaborations (including those with his wife, Jane, and with Frank Oz) and his insatiable need to keep pushing his boundaries.

There’s so much to love here: old, gut-splitting commercials; behind-the-scenes footage and stories from “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show”; and explorations of “The Dark Crystal,” “Labyrinth” and “The Muppet Movie.” But what struck me especially was that Howard has made a movie that every young artist should watch (and older ones, too), whether they’re making puppets, paintings, music, movies or anything that requires creative labor.

That’s because the film shows that Henson’s work was rooted in an unquenchable drive for exploration. One interviewee notes that he was lured into working on “Sesame Street” by the promise that he could make the kind of short experimental films he loved — and suddenly I realized that my taste for unhinged abstraction in film had been partly shaped when I was 4 and plopped in front of PBS.

Brian Henson, Jim and Jane’s son, notes that both his parents had a “sophisticated appreciation of nonsense and absurdity,” which is sometimes echoed in the best young comedians and artists whose videos roll across my social media feeds. There are young Hensons all around us, and their worth can’t be measured purely in clicks and sponsorship deals.

The immense delight in “Jim Henson Idea Man” comes with simply watching funny, obsessed weirdos like Henson and his friends doing something nobody else was doing, something few people do anymore: taking children’s entertainment (and later adult entertainment) seriously as craft. I’ve heard naysayers argue that it’s silly to ask children’s movies to be any good, since they’re just for kids. But Henson knew better: Every opportunity to make something was a chance to explore with the audience. There’s a reason, then, that his work lasts.