Jim Henson Idea Man: Two SPOILER-FREE Reviews

Published: May 27, 2024
Categories: Feature, Reviews

In celebration of Jim Henson Idea Man and the person who inspired it, I’ve decided to think outside the box and take a different approach in my spoiler-free criticism. That’s right, it’s time to Choose Your Own Review! I’ve written two reviews of the documentary, and you can pick which version best applies to you!

If all you know about Jim Henson is that he created the Muppets and died young, read the section under For Casual Fans. If that last sentence made your blood boil, read the section under For Hardcore Fans. (Or you can be a pal and read both. And don’t you want to be nice to the folks who rack their brains for hours figuring out what to say without revealing too much?)

For Casual Fans

Even if I wasn’t a big Muppet fan, I’d still say Jim Henson was a fascinating man. When you think about all he created, from his work on Sesame Street to The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, just to name a few things, he had the kind of creativity that really makes people want to know more about him. And for the casual fan, this film will get you under the surface. This documentary is a great primer on his life and work, and by the end of it, you’ll likely have a much deeper appreciation of what he was able to do in the relatively short lifespan he had.

And when you talk about such a creative, vibrant life, it helps to have someone at the helm who understands what that’s like, and Ron Howard definitely does. The way the story of Jim’s life is arranged helps to keep things engaging. Admittedly, it is fast-paced simply to capture the whole of his life in a reasonable runtime, but Howard does let the bigger moments have some room to breathe. The format is mostly linear, but they do backtrack at some points to get into bigger subjects that better inform the context of the story.

Another element that keeps things buoyant is the many interviews they feature. Jim always prided himself on the people he worked with to bring these creations to life, and we get to hear from a lot of them, including Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, and Michael Frith. But there is one group that really defines the movie. This film would feel incomplete without the presence of Jim’s children, and they are arguably the most important interviewees the film has. Not only do they reflect on his work, but they also provide crucial insight into the man in “Idea Man.” While they could’ve glossed over his home life, great care is taken into exploring the unique relationship Jim had with his wife, Jane. If there’s one part of Jim’s story that isn’t as well known as all the things he made, it’s his family, and we get to see the affection they shared, even as Jim’s rising star pulled him away from them.

The documentary is incredibly joyful, spiritual, and if you grew up with the Muppets, a major nostalgia trip. Hopefully, this will inspire you to look further into his life and times, because there’s still so much of the story to tell.

For Hardcore Fans

With all that out of the way, I’ll admit, I can’t really spoil this movie too much because it’s a story we all know, and one that’s been told many times before. If you’re reading this, I’m betting you were a pal and read the casual fan review, because ToughPigs readers are generally nice folks. You might’ve noticed by glancing up that I mentioned that there’s still so much of Jim’s story to tell. For the casual folks, it is a nice primer, but for the rest of us, it sort of feels like the nickel tour version of Brian Jay Jones’s “Jim Henson: The Biography.” It doesn’t really add any more insight that we didn’t already know. Yet I still appreciate the film for what it is: a great introduction to Jim Henson.

So is it worth watching even if you already know that every American network turned down The Muppet Show before Lew Grade agreed to produce it for syndication? I’d say yes, as long as you manage your expectations. This isn’t really meant for us, but there’s still plenty for the diehards to enjoy. Watching it felt sort of like going to see my favorite band in concert. I know all the words, but it’s still fun to see the story told again. I clapped when my favorite characters and projects showed up, I sang along to my favorite songs, and I recited the lines to some of my favorite sketches. I suppose the one thing we haven’t seen before is some of the behind the scenes footage and some early drawings from Jim. Those on their own are worth seeing, especially when we finally see video of things we’ve only been told about before. (I’d say what, but I have to leave something for the spoilery review!) Fans like us will also appreciate the little details, from the references to Jim’s Red Book to the interview set looking like The Cube. It’s clear that this was a labor of love and appreciation.

Perhaps my most pleasant surprise came from how much attention Jane gets. Last year, I expressed my wish to see more of her story told. While the documentary isn’t all about her (the title should be a clue), it does scratch my itch a bit. We get a sense of the artistic genius Jane possessed, and how she grappled with her drive to share her own work and help children, her role as a mother, and a desire to support Jim, who, for all their issues, she still held a fondness for even as their marriage was starting to disintegrate. Looking at Jim through the lens of Jane helps to humanize him, and that makes him a far richer subject. Hopefully, this film gets more people as curious about Jane’s own life story as I am.

I suppose my main criticism comes from the imbalance of the eras. Great attention is paid to the 60’s and 70’s, but the movie picks up speed when it comes to the 80’s, as Jim reached the height of his fame while experiencing some of the biggest financial flops. It’s great if you love The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, but not so much if you want to hear about, well, anything else. Even the Disney deal feels like an afterthought, and yet, in Jones’s biography, it’s a turning point in Jim’s career. But I’ll acknowledge that much as I want them to cover every project he worked on, it’s just not practical for a documentary that’s supposed to have a broad appeal.

Much like looking at Jim’s flaws doesn’t take away from the incredible work he did, my issues with the movie don’t take away from the fact that I had a blast watching it. There’s a reason Jim Henson remains such an inspiration to generations of artists and fans, and this film does a great job of showing why his story is so appealing. It’s not the perfect documentary (I still recommend Jones’s biography for the most in-depth chronicle of Jim’s life), but it is accessible, charming and entertaining. And in the end, that’s what his story has to be.

Click here to turn ahead to page 48 on the ToughPigs Discord!

by Matthew Soberman – Matthew@ToughPigs.com

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