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Ron Howard’s Conventional Disney+ Doc

Ron Howard’s Conventional Disney+ Doc

There are surely better and more in-depth documentaries to be made about the genius of Jim Henson than Ron Howard‘s Jim Henson Idea Man, but perhaps not documentaries made with the full involvement of the Henson family, access to the Henson archives and an easy avenue to broadcast on Disney+.

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in the Cannes Classics sidebar, it’s a soft and fairly satisfying movie — one with a great and well-earned appreciation for the man being chronicled, but very little of Henson’s boundary-breaking spirit. Jim Henson Idea Man is a very conventional movie that dedicates its time to proving how unconventional Jim Henson was. You may be inclined, then, to just say, “What’d you expect from a Ron Howard documentary?” or “What’d you expect from a Disney+ documentary?” But that doesn’t mean Jim Henson Idea Man should be dismissed, just accepted in its limitations.

Jim Henson Idea Man

The Bottom Line

A conventional tribute to an unconventional man.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Airdate: Friday, May 31 (Disney+)
Director: Ron Howard

1 hour 48 minutes

After all, let me assure you, 108 minutes spent watching vintage Sesame Street sketches, Muppets outtakes and Frank Oz isn’t time poorly spent. It’s just that the documentary depicts Henson as a man with a constant awareness that he had more things he wanted to accomplish than time allotted to him, and Jim Henson Idea Man has more story to tell than time allotted to it.

Howard, a steady but never dynamic documentarian, is actually at his best in the first third of Jim Henson Idea Man, as he establishes the pre-fame origins of the legendary entertainer. Though there’s ample footage from early Henson efforts in puppetry, as well as his experimental short films plus archival interviews with his late wife Jane, Howard has to fill in a lot of visual gaps. Using bursts of animation, Howard brings Henson’s early sketches and pictures to life and establishes an off-kilter rhythm that matches reasonably well with the jazzy chaos of Henson’s aesthetic.

I guess you could say that as the film shows Henson going more mainstream, or the mainstream assimilating Henson, Howard’s approach becomes more mainstream. But it’s much more that once he has the opportunity to fall back on both previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage and endlessly deployed Sesame Street and Muppet Show sketches, Howard is happy to let them speak to and represent Henson’s genius without needing to embellish. The minute I don’t tear up watching the famous “Kermit and Joey Say the Alphabet” moment from Sesame Street — she keeps adding “Cookie Monster,” he gets flustered, she says “I love you” — is the minute I turn in my “human” card, but at this point how many times has that scene been used for similar purposes?

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Recent years have seen documentaries dedicated to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and many more Gen X and millennial youth touchstones. A formula has fallen into place. At no point does Jim Henson Idea Man break from that formula, so it can be completely moving throughout and yet never revelatory.

The talking heads are varied, but almost none of them dig especially deep, and there’s an odd resistance to storytelling in favor of general platitudes about genius and persistence and childlike spirit. Four of Henson’s five children are on-camera, and they speak of their father with love, but with more specificity about him as a mentor — they all have gone into some variation of the family business — than as a paternal figure. Perhaps that’s why Frank Oz, easily the best of the documentary’s featured speakers, explains that he only became truly close to Henson when he started viewing him as a mentor and collaborator, rather than a surrogate dad. Oz has the stories and the insight that nobody else in the documentary possesses, which is probably why Henson is happy to let Oz even talk about things that have basically nothing to do with Henson at all, like how he came to understand Miss Piggy as a character.

Howard has the most people available to talk about Sesame Street, and so that chapter in Henson’s life probably takes up a plurality of the documentary even though it’s generally material that was presented in more depth in Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang. When it comes to The Muppet Show, Rita Moreno is the only celebrity who shows up to recall her experience. When it comes to Henson’s later, more mature features, Howard’s A Beautiful Mind star Jennifer Connelly drops by to express her enthusiasm about Labyrinth — but again with only limited specificity, as if she had less depth she needed to share and more desire to lend a hand to a director who steered her to an Oscar.

I think a better documentary would feature more of Oz and Henson’s various collaborators and maybe push the Henson children to give answers that are less about bland recitations of their father’s biography and more about experiences with him. None of that would require any more negativity or criticism than Jim Henson Idea Man possesses. Either way, it’s straightforward hagiography in which Henson’s greatest flaw is an obsession with work, and if that got in the way of his marriage, it doesn’t seem to have hindered any of his other relationships.

The documentary delivers less perspective on Henson’s personality and motivations than sheer evidence of his drive. That’s fine, and the documentary is fine. Anybody with affection for Henson and his work will get the requisite laughs, nostalgia and probably emotions from the footage Howard assembled here. Deeper understanding will have to wait.

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