There’s an ever-increasing genre of movies these days that seem to survive on childhood nostalgia and very little else. Whether they’re low-budget 80s action or 90s Gen-X angst, many of them only many to stand up to repeat viewings because of their ability to expertly pluck on those special nostalgic heartstrings. What’s becoming even more common, though, is movies that are being made now that manage to pluck these same heartstrings, despite never even existing in our childhoods. I Am Big Bird is the latest addition to this genre, an unabashed attempt to cash in on the childhood memories of every child who grew up practicing the alphabet with a man in a yellowed feathered suit.
Now, I Am Big Bird is by no means a bad film. It offers some amazing insights into the history of Big Bird and the impact that he had on people all around the world, from America to China to Australia and even to outer space (well, almost). The film covers a huge span of the life of Big Bird’s puppeteer Caroll Spinney, from his difficult childhood to the failure of his first marriage to finding the love of his life and establishing one of the world’s best-known children’s characters, and manages to gather together all of the big players in Spinney’s life.
However, while this the film showcases some truly excellent footage it mixes it in with a lot that doesn’t really seem to serve much of a purpose, and even some that is actually uncomfortable. Watching his wife recount the story of him courting her, not realising he had done so several times before, is absolutely gorgeous – even after all the years, she absolutely glows while she’s talking about it. Unfortunately the segment on the trip the Spinneys made to China in the 80s is exactly what you would expect from a pair of white Middle Americans travelling overseas for the first time (“They thought he was a real bird!” Did they Debra? Did they really?) and this makes for some very awkward viewing. The reunion with Lianzi Ouyang, the young Chinese girl who starred in Big Bird in China with Spinney also comes across as being a bit too much like an Oprah segment to feel truly authentic, and it’s only Lianzi’s charm that lends it anything close to genuine emotion.
The film also has an odd take on Elmo, turning him into something close to the villain of the piece, depicting him as the newer, hipper Muppet that stole Big Bird’s limelight in what feels like a plot lifted from a bad 80s movie. It does counter this with some genuinely heart-warming moments, however, and the footage of (and homages to) Jim Henson are especially moving. The story of Spinney secretly crying inside of the costume during the breakdown of his first marriage is particularly emotional, and I challenge any viewer to keep a dry eye during the footage of Spinney singing ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’ at Henson’s funeral.
Overall, the film presses down very hard on the nostalgia button within the first few minutes and never really lets up, but for someone who grew up on Sesame Street (and, as the film notes, it’s hard to find many people that didn’t) it’s a wonderful look into the show and the characters that we all adored. While the film bills itself as being about Caroll, it’s Big Bird who is undoubtedly the star, with a few smaller appearances from Spinney’s wife, his children, his co-workers and Spinney himself. For the majority of the film we get far more insight into the character of Big Bird than the man inside him, and by the end we still have very little feel for what the man Spinney is actually like. This is only a problem, though, if you’re watching this movie for the man, instead of watching it for Big Bird. There’s a reason this movie is called I Am Big Bird, and it’s because even the movie itself recognises who the real star of this show is.