I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story Movie Poster Image
Some iffy stuff in touching docu about Sesame Street icon.
  • NR
  • 2015
  • 90 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Talks about how people can have two "sides" -- a kind, loving side and a grouchy side (like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch). Suggests that unconditional love and open-hearted curiosity can be a path to success, but also that hard work and persistence can pay off as well.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Spinney is a little mysterious, and he certainly has his dark side, but he seems like a genuinely kind, loving person. He's talented and hard-working and has devoted his life to trying to make children happy.

Violence

Mentions of an abusive childhood, references to father hitting mother and leaving bruises. Mild images of the Vietnam War. Reference to "rape." Death is discussed. Suicide is mentioned.

Sex

Very mild innuendo.

Language

A single use of "f--king," barely heard, but written in a subtitle. Plus "oh God," and "bastards."

Consumerism

Images of Big Bird toys and products.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a documentary about the puppeteer who performs Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on TV's Sesame Street. While most of the content is OK for tweens and up, it's not appropriate for the littlest Big Bird fans: Spinney talks about his troubled childhood and his abusive father, who beat him up as well as his mother. Images of the Vietnam War are briefly shown, suicide is mentioned, and death is discussed. Spinney uses the word "rape" to describe the feeling he had when some students ruined his Big Bird suit; there's also one use of "f--k" (barely heard but written in subtitles) and a use of "bastards." There's some very mild, brief innuendo. Big Bird toys and products are shown.

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What's the story?

On TV's Sesame Street, the characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch have been enormously popular for decades; I AM BIG BIRD gives viewers a glimpse of the man who's been behind both of them since the beginning: Caroll Spinney. Hired by Jim Henson, Spinney was ready to give up before he even started, but eventually Big Bird became Sesame Street's most popular character. He was apparently even invited (but did not go) onto a space shuttle to orbit the Earth (that shuttle turned out to be the ill-fated Challenger). Now in his 80s (and still performing both of his beloved characters!), Spinney tells stories of his rough childhood, of how he grew to love puppets, and of his love story with his wife, Debra.

Is it any good?

Fans of all ages will find something to cherish here, although it should be noted that the movie has some material that makes it inappropriate for the youngest Big Bird fans. I Am Big Bird hits upon the very revealing notion that Spinney's two polar-opposite characters, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, actually represent the two sides of Spinney's personality. Unfortunately, Spinney himself proves to be a fairly elusive interview subject. He's immensely likable, but he's also fairly low-key and doesn't share very many big revelations about himself. The bulk of the movie lies in the interviews with his co-workers and loved ones.

A clash with a former director on Sesame Street seems rather one-sided, though Spinney admits that he learned a lot from the experience. The movie offers many such fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits -- like just how complicated and physically demanding it is to operate Big Bird and how the show (quite movingly) handled the death of Mr. Hooper back in 1982.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the target audience for I Am Big Bird. Who do you think it's intended for? Why do you think the iffy content was included? How does it add to or detract from Spinney's story?

  • Why is Big Bird so appealing? Do you think he'd be just as popular if he were introduced today?

  • Could Big Bird exist without Oscar the Grouch? Can a good side exist without a bad side?

  • Is Spinney a role model? Does he make you want to be a puppeteer? Does he make you want to create things for children?

Movie details

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