‘Jim Henson Idea Man’ Review: Ron Howard Paints Moving Portrait Of Muppets Creator As Restless Innovator – Cannes Film Festival

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It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Jim Henson came up with the concept for an immersive video dome long before Sphere bubbled up in Las Vegas.

In the mid-1960s he developed an idea for a nightclub he called Cyclia – “the entertainment experience of the future” – that would feature crystal panels throughout the ceiling, floor and walls onto which films would be projected.

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“Once an hour, a woman in a white leotard would rise from a pedestal in the center of the floor to have film projected on her body as she danced,” writes author Brian Jay Jones in Jim Henson: A Biography.

For better or worse, the psychedelia-inspired concept never became a reality. But it’s an example of the restless imagination that propelled Henson throughout his life. The incredible range of Henson’s creative urges come into focus in Ron Howard’s documentary Jim Henson Idea Man, which made its world premiere tonight at the Cannes Film Festival.

Jim Henson
Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog, ca. early 1970s

In this deft and touching portrayal, Howard expands our appreciation for Henson’s brilliance beyond “just” the Muppets – though creating that menagerie of memorable characters out of felt, foam, ping pong balls, and other materials would have been more than enough to secure his artistic legacy. The Jim Henson of Idea Man is constantly creating: along with the nightclub notion, there were ideas for Broadway shows, ballets and amusement parks (parallels to Walt Disney spring to mind, making it appropriate that Disney would ultimately absorb Henson’s company following his death in 1990).

Puppeteering, we learn through the film, was really a means to an end – a way for Henson to enter the nascent medium of television. His parents invested in the purchase of one of the first TV sets available in 1950 – at Jim’s insistence. As a teenager he responded to an ad for a Washington, DC TV station in search of a puppeteer. Thus began a journey that led to the creation of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Cookie Monster, Fozzie Bear, Bert and Ernie, the Swedish chef, Beaker (the high-strung lab assistant whose anxiety is expressed through chirps of “mee-mee-mee-mee-mee”), and so many others.

L-R Puppeteers Daniel Seagren, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz rehearse an episode of 'Sesame Street' in March, 1970 in New York City.
(L-R) Puppeteers Daniel Seagren, Jim Henson and Frank Oz rehearse an episode of ‘Sesame Street’ in March, 1970 in New York City

Jim Henson Idea Man is a soup-to-nuts biographical documentary, covering the entire range of the protagonist’s life and career: upbringing in Mississippi; marriage to Jane Nebel, his artistic partner and wife, who sometimes puppeted Kermit in the early days; collaboration with the Children’s Television Workshop on Sesame Street, which introduced millions to the Muppets; the syndicated The Muppet Show and subsequent movies; and Henson’s other big screen endeavors, like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Some of the same ground has been covered in Muppet Guys Talking, the 2017 documentary directed by Frank Oz, Henson’s longtime collaborator (the Bert to Jim’s Ernie), as well as Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, a 2021 doc directed by Marilyn Agrelo. But Howard brings fresh energy to the subject through the skillful use of animations based on Henson’s impressive drawings and wonderful archival rarities that go beyond what has been seen in previous treatments of Henson’s life.

One of the gems is an interview with Henson and Oz conducted before a live audience with none other than Orson Welles. The portly Welles intones, in that extraordinary baritone, “The Muppets – they’re superstars. Just because they’re so popular, we may neglect to notice that Muppetry is also an art.”

Rita Moreno in 'Jim Henson Idea Man'
Rita Moreno in ‘Jim Henson Idea Man’

To my mind, this is the most visually inventive documentary Howard has made. The simplicity of the gray, box-like set for interviews with Henson’s children, Oz, Fran Brill, Rita Moreno and other collaborators, evokes both the black-and-white tone and the 5:4 aspect ratio of early television, and permits rear projection of appropriate clips that illustrate what interviewees are discussing.

Howard has taken on other “celebrity” subjects in his docs – Luciano Pavarotti and The Beatles, for instance. He seems well suited to telling Henson’s story because both men appear to share a fundamentally optimistic view of human potential. Both have a gentleness about their demeanors and a creative appetite that pushes them in many directions, yet not into monomania of self-absorption and self-importance.

Director Ron Howard attends the 'Jim Henson Idea Man' photocall at the Cannes Film Festival May 18, 2024.
Director Ron Howard attends the ‘Jim Henson Idea Man’ photocall at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday

When I spoke with Howard before he left for Cannes, he told me he had met Henson briefly. “I knew people who knew him very well, who held him in such high esteem. He was a very modest guy,” he said. “But at an immediate first glance, I still didn’t realize the scope of what he had accomplished… I was curious about this sort of explosion of creativity and what was the engine behind him and it? I knew he was passionate about his work — everyone knew that — but I didn’t know where this kind of outlier mentality came from combined with this extraordinary amount of work.”

Jim Henson Idea Man does an admirable job of exploring Henson as someone who achieved huge mainstream success, but at heart was an artist and daring filmmaker. Howard makes excellent use of Time Piece, an experimental short Henson directed in 1965, in which Henson himself stars as a man boxed in and harried by time. The theme runs through the documentary – Henson as someone bursting with ideas and knowing that there could never be enough time to realize them all. Did he have some sort of subconscious sense that he wouldn’t live until old age? Or was it the drive itself – the sleep deprivation (his son Brian says his dad would often go two days straight without rest while working on projects) – that made him neglect his health? Henson contracted a bacterial infection in May 1990 but didn’t get treatment for several days. By the time he did, it was too late.

His death at age 53 leaves one to wonder what else he could have accomplished if fate had give him more time. But Jim Henson Idea Man stands as the definitive account of all he did achieve.

Title: Jim Henson Idea Man
Festival: Cannes (Classics)
Distributor: Disney+
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Mark Monroe
Running time: 1 hr 51 min

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