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I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Cinedigm // Unrated // August 11, 2015
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted July 30, 2015 | E-mail the Author

For more than 40 years, Caroll Spinney has hidden inside a stuffy, eight-foot yellow suit with no eye holes, using his hands and feet to bring Sesame Street icon Big Bird to life (he also portrays Oscar, but doesn't actually sit inside the trash can). The early versions of both characters were, respectively, a complete dunce and an unlikable grump until Spinney's playful sense of childlike wonder gave them more well-defined personalities...and, in Oscar's case, a hint of a soft spot. It turns out that the man behind both characters isn't far off from his on-screen personas: a sweet and good-natured guy who loves to draw, treats his wife like they were still dating, and will most likely keep working until doctors drag him off the set. There's a hint of Grouch in there too, just to spice things up a little.

Not surprisingly, Spinney has no shortage of admirers from his professional and personal life, which are a lot more intertwined than you'd expect. Aside from the obvious candidates---his devoted wife Deb and three children, plus a number of familiar Sesame Street faces including Bob McGrath ("Bob"), Emilio Delgado ("Luis"), Loretta Long ("Susan"), and Sonia Manzano ("Maria")---participants include long-time Sesame Street writer/director Jon Stone, production designer Victor DiNapoli, executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente, late voice actor/performer Jerry Nelson, actress Lisa Ouyang (Big Bird in China), living legend Frank Oz, Children's Television Workshop co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney, the late Jane Henson (via audio interviews), and more. Even Judy Valentine, Spinney's co-star from an early 1960s version of Bozo the Clown, speaks about Spinney's enthusiasm and skill before he was more widely known.

I Am Big Bird is largely (and unsurprisingly) told in chronological order. Spinney speaks freely about his childhood and family life: a mother who supported his creativity and enthusiasm for puppets; a father who was somewhat cold, distant, and occasionally abusive; and trouble at school for "playing with dolls" and having a less-than-masculine first name. Nonetheless, entertainment was obviously his passion: a number of TV gigs and public performances led to a surprise encounter with Jim Henson (on two separate occasions, even), who persuaded the young puppeteer to accept a gig on Sesame Street. Though creative differences and payment initially soured his love of the job soon after he started, Spinney stuck with it at the request of a crew member and hasn't looked back since.

From here on out, I Am Big Bird maintains its chronological storytelling, only stopping for brief rest periods to explore other aspects of Spinney's life and times: a first marriage that led to three children and a rocky divorce, meeting and marrying his second wife Deb (who have remained together during the last 42 years), balancing work with family life, valiantly avoiding retirement, and more. Other interesting tidbits of life on Sesame Street are also shared, including Spinney's creative friction with director Jon Stone, going to China for the first time, Muppet mechanics and "how the suit works", the infamous "Mr. Hooper" episode, and Jim Henson's untimely death, just to name a few. Perhaps the film's most sobering moment is a reminder of the failed Challenger space shuttle mission, which Spinney (as Big Bird) was scheduled to be part of until space limitations forced NASA to send Christa McAuliffe instead.

For obvious reasons, I Am Big Bird is more than a collection of well-timed Sesame Street clips, orchestra swells, and back-patting interviews. Aside from a few pacing issues along the way, it's a well-rounded exploration of a fascinating figure who's gone relatively unnoticed in the shadow of two well-known television icons, not to mention a reminder that bitter childhood memories don't mean the cycle has to repeat itself. Spinney reconciled with his father in the late 1970s before his death, and seems to have used his actions as a clear demonstration of not how to raise a family. The man behind the Bird (and Grouch!) seems extremely well-balanced and happy, now at 81 years of age with more than half of it devoted to a wonderful family and career...and absolutely no signs of stopping on the horizon.

Cinedigm's DVD of I Am Big Bird is passable enough on paper, serving up a mostly solid A/V presentation and a short but thoughtful collection of bonus features. It's certainly good enough for a weekend viewing, though a lack of substantial value might keep more casual fans from adding this disc to their collections. Either way, this is a terrific documentary that makes you care about its subject, especially if you grew up watching Sesame Street. Who didn't?

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, I Am Big Bird looks pretty good on DVD...for the most part, at least. Recent interviews are clean with good image detail and lit well with no flagrant errors. Still images and recently-drawn cartoon "re-enactments" (which I thought may have been drawn by Spinney, but he's not credited) are clean and crisp with good color reproduction. The main problem I had with some of the visuals, however, is entirely due to the source material: home movies, pre-HD Sesame Street clips, and more---almost all of which were originally shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio---have been cropped to fill the widescreen frame, and this only amplifies their flaws. I have no idea why most modern documentaries are so dead-set on maintaining a widescreen aspect ratio at any cost, but this is one case where it works against the film's effectiveness: this footage feels very cramped and there's no shortage of artifacts, ghosting, noise, and all the other problems usually associated with videotaped sources of varying quality. But some of these aren't the DVD's problem, so take that slightly docked video rating with a grain of salt.

DISCLAIMER: This review's compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.

The audio is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or Dolby 2.0 Stereo, both of which have no trouble serving up a passable presentation. Dialogue is relatively clear; though no optional subtitles or captions are included during the film, the occasional bits of background or muffled dialogue feature burned-in subs. The music is mixed well and, along with a few moments of subtle ambient noise, serves as one of the few instances of surround activity.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The static, film-themed interface (above) offers smooth and simple navigation, although a handful of forced trailers, logos, and other annoying diversions must be dealt with beforehand. This one-disc release is housed in a plain black keepcase; no inserts have been included either, which gives the whole package a deceptively boring appearance.

Bonus Features

Less than expected, but what's here is definitely worth watching. Seven Deleted Scenes (12:57) include more time with Caroll Spinney, ranging from brief snippets to more in-depth short stories. "Caroll on Camera" and "Caroll Meets Michael Jackson" both offer a quick account of his only out-of-suit Sesame Street appearance and a memorable run-in with the King of Pop...but no clips or stills are included, which is disappointing. "Oscar the Grouch" explores Spinney's grumpy side, while "Big Bird's Biggest Fan" details his relationship with a special boy. "First Date" (below left) recounts his whirlwind romance with future wife Deb (engaged within two weeks!), while "Deb's Song" features a rousing solo by Big Bird with Spinney's father-in-law on piano. Finally, "Chinese Big Bird" (below right) shows Spinney hand-picking his equivalent for the Chinese version of Sesame Street, reminding us that an impressive resume doesn't always land us the job. Again, these are all worth a look, though it's obvious why some were cut for time.

I Am Big Bird offers a long-overdue look at an unlikely television icon: one that's been hiding behind a bright yellow costume (and a trash can) for the pat 40+ years. Caroll Spinney's long, illustrious career and interesting personal life provide ample fodder for this feature-length documentary, which also features comments from dozens of friends, family members, and co-workers familiar with the real man behind the mask. There's a lot of vintage home movies, colorful animation, and still photos that break up the talking head interviews...and aside from a few pacing issues along the way, I Am Big Bird is extremely compelling from start to finish. Cinedigm's DVD package is good but not exceptional, offering a decent A/V presentation but only a few short extras. Those with fond memories of Sesame Street will obviously want to pick this up at some point, but casual fans will be happy with a rental. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, editing taglines, and writing in third person.
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