Jim Henson Idea Man Spoiler-Filled Review

Published: May 31, 2024
Categories: Feature, Reviews

When I first heard Ron Howard was making a full length documentary about Jim Henson, I was thrilled.  When I saw the trailer and heard that incredible mix of Rainbow Connection, I was even more excited.  And when I sat down last week to watch the almost two hour long Jim Henson Idea Man, I was overflowing with anticipation.  Let me say now – this documentary is wonderful.  It’s fun, it’s informative and it paints the picture of a man who was determined to do it all in a life that would tragically be cut short.

But as the credits rolled, I had a weird feeling.  Why didn’t I love this as much as I’d wanted to?  Why wouldn’t a documentary on the man I’d consider a hero of mine be exactly what I wanted it to be?  Then, in talking about it a few hours later with a friend, I realised exactly why I hadn’t come away from it with a sense of wonder and awe.  It’s because I watch documentaries to learn about a subject, but this time I kinda just knew it all already.  Weirdly, as a man with multiple Muppet tattoos, this documentary about Jim Henson isn’t really made for someone like me.

I blame Brian Jay Jones for this, and I’ll gladly tell him that to his face.  In 2013 Brian released his book Jim Henson: The Biography, which went deep into Jim’s life both as a creator and as a person.  Through thousands of hours of interviews and research, Brian painted as complete of a picture as we’re ever going to get.  Jim wasn’t a perfect father.  Jim was far from a perfect husband.  Jim worked so hard that it took a toll on a lot of aspects of his life.  While Idea Man hits on these subjects, it’s almost in passing, a moment here or there, like a brief moment where Brian Henson talks about a tumultuous night on his 18th birthday.  I was hoping we’d get a little more detail, a little bit more of a look at the Man and less of the Idea.

That said, I’m appreciative of the fact that Idea Man doesn’t only paint Jim in a great light.  Jim and Jane Henson’s relationship wasn’t the best, with Lisa Henson referring to them as having two separate emotional realities.  As discussed in the documentary, Jim was very respectful of women and yet had some ‘traditional’ views on gender roles when it came to having a family, a role that Jane had no intentions of falling into.  Jane was a partner to Jim in the early Sam & Friends years, but when she had kids the expectations were that she would be a mother while Jim would work on their company.  The Henson kids detail her feeling abandoned, left out of the company she helped create, until finally she sees the writing on the wall and relinquishes her shares, mainly to her kids.  Jane would continue to be an integral part of Jim’s life, even after their breakup.  Jane was still scouting talent, was still a sounding board for Jim, and was who Jim called upon when he became sick at the end of his life.  I’d argue Jane came out of Idea Man looking like the patron saint of The Muppets, a fierce backbone and a force to be reckoned with, one who made her own Declaration of Independence on June 11th 1973.  If anyone who can make it happen is listening, I’d love a Jane Henson documentary!

Some of the most interesting parts of this documentary in my eyes was the archival footage I’d never seen before.  Clips of Jim and his family around the house, Frank Oz’s puppetry work before he joined The Muppets, gerbils running around the workshop and on Don Sahlin’s desk.  Ron Howard apparently spoke to everyone he could that had worked with Jim and for The Muppets over the years and asked for every bit of footage they could find, both home movies and photos.  There are clips filmed under the Bert and Ernie bedroom sets of Jim and Frank messing around with their two characters, there are Bert and Ernie bloopers I’ve never seen.  But perhaps the biggest joy I got the entire time watching was seeing the footage of Jim getting in and out of the famous underwater barrel he used to puppeteer Kermit in the Rainbow Connection scene of The Muppet Movie.  Look, I don’t know what I had in my head, maybe something akin to a mini submarine.  So imagine my shock when I saw just how tiny that container was!

I wish we’d had a longer runtime, even though this runs just under 2 hours.  We get very little about Jim directing The Great Muppet Caper, or his time on Fraggle Rock.  Heck, do we even see a shot of Cantus?

It’s hard to review a story I’ve heard 100 times, because we know how it ends.  It won’t be a shock to you, or to anyone watching really, that Jim got sick and passed away at the age of just 53.

So I’m left wondering, what might be the purpose of Jim Henson Idea Man?  It’s simple – it’s not for me or you.  It’s for your mother, or your cousin, or your friend.  It’s for the person who knows you love The Muppets and that guy who used to be Kermit back in the 70’s and 80’s, but doesn’t know the backstory of their time on SNL or who the hell Lord Lew Grade is.  It’s for the person who knows the guy who directed Death At A Funeral was Fozzie Bear but maybe didn’t know he was also Animal.  It’s for the people who watched Sesame Street back in 1993 but never watched The Muppets Take Manhattan.  So I encourage you all to post about it on your socials, let the people in your life know they can finally get a taste of what it is you’ve been going on about for the last few years.  Let Jim Henson, his family and his friends describe him in their own words.

By Jarrod Fairclough – Jarrod@ToughPigs.com

Click here to acknowledge Joe Hennes in the credits on the ToughPigs Discord Server!

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