Jim Henson Idea Man: An In-Depth Look at the Muppet Man

A still from Jim Henson Idea Man. Courtesy of Disney.

Ron Howard delves into the archives to explore Jim Henson’s genius and celebrate his enduring legacy in the new film, Jim Henson Idea Man.

It’s funny. Jim Henson had never ever seen a puppet show but an ad caught his interest and the rest his history. After starting on local television, he created icons for Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fragile Rock. Many people know his work today because of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Big Bird, Grover, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, and so many more. The success of The Muppet Show would spawn many movies and further TV shows, not to mention a theme park attraction at Walt Disney World. Despite directing it, Muppet*Vision 3-D would not open until 1991, following his untimely passing at the age of 53 in 1990. His death would also delay Disney’s acquisition of The Muppets into the early 2000s. But anyway, Muppet Babies and the Disney attraction served as my first introduction to the wide world of Muppets.

The film would not be what it is without having access to Jim Henson’s archives. All of his children are on board and they share insight into who Henson was as a father along with his marriage to Jane. Many of them got involved with the company at a young age was so they could spend time with him. This speaks to just how busy Henson was on the creative side of things. All in all, he was a complex man but his creations would bring joy to so many. This includes some of the darker content, including The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Both films would become classics in time. In any event, Henson’s marriage to Jane and his relationship with Frank Oz would help shape the film into what it is.

The film is life-spanning from his childhood in Leland, Mississippi all the way to his tragic death in 1990. But as in-depth as it may be, it doesn’t cover everything. For one, it doesn’t feel like there’s anything here on Henson’s work with SNL. Obviously, Street Gang covers a good deal of Henson’s involvement in Sesame Street. Unfortunately, the HBO documentary is way too short for a Sesame Street film! A film on Jim Henson should be at least a two-part  film to capture everything. Frank Oz gets the most screen time of non-family members and shares so much about Henson. We also get insight from Muppet performer Dave Goelz and retired Sesame Street performer Fran Bill. Between coworkers and family, we really get a full portrait of Henson. In addition to the late Jim Henson, the late Jane Henson and Jerry Juhl appear by way of archival footage.

Despite the flaw of not being long enough, it does its job in introducing Henson to a new generation. Plus, we get to see a clip of Henson and Oz with Orson Welles! Many filmmakers had approached The Jim Henson Company especially after Morgan Neville knocked it out of the park with Won’t You Be My Neighbor? They knew that any documentary would be great but they were waiting for the right filmmaker. They wanted an approach similar to how Martin Scorsese approached George Harrison: Living in the Material World.  That’s where Ron Howard entered the picture. He’s become a fine documentary filmmaker in addition to his excellent work in narrative features. He gave us the first major work on The Beatles since 1995 with The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.

Jim Henson Idea Man is the definitive film on Henson but the visionary artist is easily worthy of a two-part documentary. I know that a biopic has been in development since 2010 but I do not know how it could improve upon the documentary. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. The film and 608-page comprehensive biography should be more than enough to satisfy Henson fans.

DIRECTOR: Ron Howard
FEATURING: Jim Henson, Cheryl Henson, Brian Henson, Heather Henson, Lisa Henson, Frank Oz, Bonnie Erickson, Alex Rockwell, Michael Frith, Rita Moreno, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Jennifer Connelly

Disney+ releases Jim Henson Idea Man on May 31, 2024. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.