Review: Filmmaker Ron Howard Chronicles Creations, Characters and Nostalgia in Jim Henson: Idea Man

Flashes of the life and career of creative visionary Jim Henson have been seen in documentaries on other subjects, including 2021’s Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, and I Am Big Bird, the documentary about puppeteer Caroll Spiney. But it took director Ron Howard to wrangle the many pieces of Henson's life and let Jim Henson: Idea Man do a fairly admirable job of not just laying out one project after another, but actually attempting to get into the creator’s mind as he struggles balancing what the people wanted and expected versus the countless ideas he had spinning around in his head. And let’s be honest, if you didn’t grow up with Muppets somewhere in your life, I’m not sure I can trust you, let alone be friends.

Thanks to Henson’s life being fairly well documented, as well as having the full cooperation of the Henson estate and access to his personal archives, Howard traces Henson’s beginnings growing up in Mississippi and his earliest creative endeavors at the University of Maryland, including heading up a puppet show (with his future wife, Jane) on local television that featured characters that would evolve into well-known ones like Kermit the Frog. By illustrating Henson’s intricately kept journals, the film beautifully tracks various projects the artist took on before landing a meeting in 1966 with an education team that lead to the creation of Sesame Street. The film explores Henson creating a new type of puppet called Muppets (a combination of puppets and marionettes), gives us many a behind-the-scenes look at how the puppeteers had to become contortionists to work their characters, and how Henson met a teenager named Frank Oz, who became a filmmaker in his own right.

Henson’s time as a short film filmmaker (he got an Oscar nomination for a short that featured zero puppets or Muppets), a brief stint working in advertising, and even a trip to Paris where his passion for puppetry was reignited are all covered here, with emphasis given to the elements that led him back to the States. That's when he fully threw himself into Muppet-oriented work, including a stab at a variety show featuring mostly new Muppet characters (all of the American networks turned the show down, forcing him to move production to London, where the show was a massive syndicated hit). 

Very few Henson projects are left unexplored, from the first Muppet movie to pit stops into fantasy storytelling with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, the latter of which dealt Henson one of his rare career failures. But Idea Man never forgets to bring Henson’s story back to how he managed to balance family life with an insane professional schedule. In most cases, he didn’t stop one project to work on another; he just kept adding new projects. As a result, the relationship with his wife was so strained that they eventually broke up, but most of his children are interviewed for this film, and their perspective on Henson’s work and home life is fascinating and quite revealing. I got just as much insight into Henson’s mind from listening to new interviews with his co-workers, especially Oz, who clearly still misses his friend, who died suddenly at 53 from an infection brought on by untreated pneumonia.

The film details the creation of nearly every major Muppet character that Henson and Oz created (the outtakes of Ernie and Bert moments are priceless), and interviews with more famous creative partners like Labyrinth star Jennifer Connelly and Muppet Show guest host Rita Moreno are used sparingly but give some lovely color to the proceedings. The film even examines a few of Henson’s business dealings, including selling his company to Disney not long before he died. At every turn, Henson and his team were growing and getting involved in more and more projects, making this documentary seem crammed full of details that could have easily allowed for a doc series or much longer feature. Still, what’s in Idea Man is terrific, heartfelt, and will likely hit your nostalgia button several times throughout its runtime.

The film is now streaming on Disney+.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.