In the wake of the Mr. Rogers documentary, I'm reminded of how much better I Am Big Bird is. Where Won't You Be My Neighbor was good in it's own right, it didn't hit me the way that Caroll Spinney's life story did. Though, as a self-professed Muppet fan and having grown up watching Sesame Street when I was a tot, I may have a slight bias.
For those unfamiliar with it's rich history, I Am Big Bird is about the life of Caroll Spinney, a puppeteer who has been working on Sesame Street since 1969 and retired this past year. Caroll met Jim Henson at a Puppetry Festival and became fast friends. He was one of the first hires for Sesame Street and nearly quit after the inaugural season because of low pay. He performed mainly as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch touring the globe performing as them, even conducting an Orchestra in costume!
The mechanics of performing as Big Bird are fascinating to learn about. Caroll would perform with one hand above his head (for hours) to move the mouth and would have the script and a small screen inside of the costume to see where the other actors were at any given time. He would essentially have to perform everything backwards, as his left would be camera right.
The documentary details his work overseas as well, filming Big Bird in China. Caroll and his wife, Debra, worked very closely with the young girl in the film, who they are reunited with in a very touching moment, so bring your hankies.
Of course, they talk about the untimely passing of Jim Henson and it's effect on everyone from Sesame. Even now, as a grown man, I cannot bear the tremendous sadness that the below video brings out in me. I dare anyone with a heart to watch this clip of Big Bird singing 'It's Not Easy Being Green' at Henson's Memorial and not feel your heart grow three sizes and your tear ducts well up.
While 'Won't You Be My Neighbor' does a fantastic job of letting us into Mr. Rogers' personal life, it didn't feel surprising at all. He very much wore his beliefs on his sleeve and was exactly who he presented to the world on his show. But with I Am Big Bird, you're invited to get to know the man behind the costume, who was always a presence of comfort to children across the globe. You get to see someone who battles with depression, divorce and comes out as a strong role model, not just for children, but for everyone. A man who's a good reminder to be kind to each other. So, should you be ready to get in touch with your inner child, do yourself a favor and watch this gem of a documentary. Caroll is an unsung hero in this day and age and deserves all the accolades.