Kermit the frog, Jim Henson and two other muppets.

Film Review: Jim Henson: Idea Man


Jim Henson: Idea Man
Director: Ron Howard
Imagine Documentaries, The Jim Henson Company
Streaming on Disney+: 05.31

A rainbow is created when sunlight strikes raindrops in front of the viewer at a 42-degree angle. It’s an illusion that is caused by the source of light that creates it, usually the sun. Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, was a source of light, and both he and the magical illusions that he created and left behind for all of us are chronicled in director Ron Howard’s magical new documentary, Jim Henson: Idea Man. 

From his early years, Jim Henson was a dreamer who wanted to tell stories and explore new ideas. When a local television station was looking for puppeteers, Henson applied, despite a lack of experience or knowledge of puppeteering. As he threw himself into a self-taught skill that gave him a foot in the door, Henson would go on to become the most iconic innovator the craft had ever seen. Extensive behind-the-scenes footage shows his early work at WRC-TV and his years reluctantly spent in advertising, followed by the breakthrough of Sesame Street. From there, a brief stint with Saturday Night Live and the phenomenal success of The Muppet Show inevitably led to major Hollywood films. The clips from these various  projects are mixed with Henson’s own sketches, as well as interviews from Henson’s children and collaborators ranging from his right hand, Frank Oz, to actress Jennifer Connelly, who started in Henson’s Labyrinth and went on to win an Oscar for her other Ron Howard film, A Beautiful Mind. Howard paints a vivid portrait of a driven man whose obsessive creative genius reshaped the landscape of television and popular culture. The film covers Henson’s rise from shy and lanky industry outsider to household name, and covers the more difficult moments in his career and personal life with remarkable candor, up to his death at age 53 in 1990.

Jim Henson: Idea Man is a fairly straightforward documentary in terms of structure and execution, employing animation and other creative visual techniques in the film’s first third, then settling in to letting the wealth of footage and firsthand accounts speak for themselves. It doesn’t pack quite the profound, soul-searching emotional impact of the 2018 Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, though it does have moments that tug at the heartstrings, and Howard doesn’t try to make any sweeping innovations in terms of technique. Instead, he trusts in the fact that he’s got one of the most fascinating creative minds of the 20th century as his subject and limits any distracting artifice that may keep us distanced from the story. It’s impeccably edited, and Hans Zimmer’s delicate yet lively musical score acts as perfect guide on our journey through Henson’s remarkable life. Frank Oz may be the most deeply effecting interview subject. From the moment that Oz tells the story of the creation of Ernie and Bert and the decision as to who would play which role—it was quickly determined that Ernie was more like Henson, and Bert more like Oz—there’s a sobering realization that in a very real way, we’re watching Bert sitting alone in a studio, remembering Ernie and trying to do justice to the time that they spent together, and it feels more jarringly personal than any of the stories told by Henson’s own children. That being said, the truth that the children share about Henson’s marriage to Jane Ann Nebel Henson is quite eye-opening. The two worked side by side on Sam and Friends, both on-screen and off, until Jane eventually quit puppeteering in the 1960s to be a full-time wife and mother, but not without regrets or resentment. It’s riveting stuff, and it’s handled with a mix of forthright honesty and sensitivity that exemplifies why Howard is the kind of of filmmaker and person you’d want to have telling your life story.

Jim Henson: Idea Man is a loving tribute and unforgettable chronicle of a life and career cut all too short, one which nevertheless had an immeasurable impact that continues to this day. It’s a moving and poignant experience, and it embodies the power of a boundless imagination that connects everyone under its spell—the lovers, the dreamers and me. –Patrick Gibbs

Read a review from the mind of Jim Henson here:
Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted