Maybe we contain multitudes, and maybe we contain a couple of great splashes of primary colors. With one arm stretched high above his head, puppeteer Caroll Spinney has spent decades embodying the warmest of yellows and grimiest of greens, playing — in every sense of the word — Sesame Street's biggest bird and most trash-talking grouch. Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker's I Am Big Bird offers just what the title promises, an involving and affectionate study of Spinney, whose fine-feathered friend we've all been following for almost half a century.
Occasionally, the friends and colleagues assembled to toast Spinney in I Am Big Bird argue that Oscar the Grouch is the yang to Spinney's sunny avian yin — that they're opposites contained within one complex man. A home-movie clip of Spinney, singing the Grouch's anthem "I Love Trash" at a party, suggests something simpler. Spinney's — and Oscar's — enthusiasm is just as heartening as Big Bird's, but the Grouch's love of garbage and his desire to spend time alone don't seem antithetical to the bird's wide-eyed sweetness. Big Bird is always just discovering the world, but that world turns Big Birds into Oscars — once out of the nest, we have to find our trash to love.
I Am Big Bird doesn't dig deep into Spinney or Oscar or Big Bird or just why the man and his Muppets have been so resonant for generations. Instead, it offers that resonance: Spinney in his bird-suit on the set, at the Hollywood Bowl, at the Great Wall of China, sometimes in amateur footage that has gone touchingly soft-edged with age. Spinney years earlier, playing a bunny with Larry Harmon's Bozo the Clown. Spinney's wife, Debra, testifying to their love — and, in one quick clip, parading about in those bird-pants. Spinney himself, tender and earnest, speaking about how tough it was to grow up as a boy named Caroll, and of his certainty, in the earliest days of Sesame Street, that he just wasn't a good enough puppeteer for the show. There's one sublime tearjerker: Spinney, in the suit, singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's funeral. Henson, meanwhile, is best represented in the story of how Spinney first caught his eye: After Spinney's one-man stage puppet show went terribly wrong, Henson approached to say, "I like what you were trying to do."
This sweet and moving film might be bettered if its creators more often pressed Spinney and company on its minor controversies: Sesame Street staffers imply that he can be moody and a little difficult and that those qualities improve the performances, but everyone is too polite to offer any details. A dustup with Sesame Street director/producer John Stone is so vaguely recounted that it's not clear why the filmmakers bothered to include it. The same goes for some late-film material about Spinney's feelings regarding the ascent of Elmo, who has taken over as king of the Street.
I like what I Am Big Bird is trying to do. I just wish it were a little less Bird-nice and a little more Grouch-frank.