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  • Nate Adams

'Jim Henson: Idea Man' review: Documentary offers touching tribute to iconic puppeteer

Courtesy of Disney+


Time eventually comes for us all. The clock is always ticking and it’s what we do with the time we’re given that leaves a resounding, lasting impact. Nobody understood that more than Jim Henson, the iconic puppeteer who ushered in a new era of creativity and imagination and who’s flagship creation, The Muppets has only risen in popularity as the generation of adults who grew up watching them have now passed the baton onto their children. Ron Howard’s “Jim Henson: Idea Man” offers a moving tribute to Henson while featuring plenty of talking heads, notably frequent collaborator Frank Oz, to help guide the viewers inside the mind of an individual who was always racing against himself. 


It's that hellacious work ethic that sticks out the most during “Idea Man,” in that Henson kept grinding and was the living embodiment of tomorrow is never guaranteed. From creating “The Muppets” to helping revolutionize children’s television with “Sesame Street,” not to mention raising his children, Henson was heralded among his peers as a “genius” or “very rare creature.” It’s remarkable to have taken this long for someone to make a documentary about his herculean efforts to introduce Kermit, Miss. Piggy, Fozzy Bear, and others to a worldwide audience that wasn’t just preschoolers. This, in addition to his filmography that includes cult classics “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” which, at the time of their release, weren’t exactly major commercial and critical hits, but they showed the resilience and unique creative intuition of someone who loved pushing the boundaries of their art.


“Idea Man” is fluid in it’s chronicling of Henson’s expansive career, starting with the inception of his studio, Muppets Inc, that’s original purpose was for the puppets to sell ads on television before pivoting towards bigger projects like film and, eventually, “The Muppets Show,” which was picked up from a television studio in London after every major network in the United States passed. In between these recollections, Howard gets first-hand accounts from Jim’s children who provide important context into what fueled his instincts and how the tragic death of his older brother Paul, who died in 1956 at the age of 26, solidified his bond with humor. The usual testimonials and archival footage seen in documentaries are often accompanied by clever animations, most of which help transition between sequences. 


Even if some of the decisions Howard makes can often feel a bit restrained and not hard hitting (especially as it pertains to Henson’s marriage separation and the emotional toll his work/life balance left on his children), it’s hard not to get swept up in the ingenuity of Henson and how his soothing, calm spirit uplifted everyone around him. That shines through in “Idea Man” and puts into perspective how fragile life is. You can’t help but think what Henson would’ve accomplished with total creative freedom and the advances in technology we have today (in the late eighties, before his death at age 53 in 1990, he was already experimenting with CGI before CGI was even a thing). 


Still, we should be grateful for what he did leave behind and how his legacy has continued to cultivate and inspire millions, including a foundation in his name that keeps the art of puppeteering alive. And, of course, both “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets” will continue to outlive us all and further cement the historical importance Jim Henson had on the industry. Nobody will ever say, he didn’t do the most with the time he was given.


Grade: B+ 


JIM HENSON: IDEA MAN is now streaming on Disney+


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