Jim Henson: Idea Man Review – The Man Behind the Muppets

A life and legacy that revolutionized puppets

9 mins read

Jim Henson: Idea Man
(USA, 110 min.)
Dir. Ron Howard


“It’s not easy being green,” Kermit the Frog once sang to the delight of audiences. The song remains a hallmark of Jim Henson’s most popular character. It also provides a key moment in Idea Man, Ron Howard’s wonderful documentary about the life, work, and influence of the man behind the Muppets.

Jim Henson: Idea Man offers a portrait of a maverick artist working within the seemingly squarest of mediums. Children’s television might not seem like the ideal stomping ground for creative outlet. And yet, Howard, arguably the squarest of filmmakers on the surface, finds in one song a subtly radical act that reveals Henson’s ingenuity as an artist.

Idea Man holds on Kermit/Henson’s sensitive performance of “Bein’ Green” longer than most other Muppets highlights in the film. Interviewees ranging from the Henson children to EGOT/perennial pop culture doc interviewee Rita Moreno dig into this song that let Henson make The Muppet Show a quietly political coup. They situate the 1970 performance as a breakthrough moment not just for children’s television, but for popular culture.

The talking heads share how one could use educational programming like Sesame Street to share messages of civil rights, peace, and equality. What seems like common sense now was a breakthrough then. The talking heads credit Henson and Kermit for articulating with a loving and accessible song the complexity of race, but also the importance of self-love. The film shows how Henson shrewdly straddled the necessity of a paid gig with his artistic aspirations. Thanks to him, kids watching at home could feel seen while relating to Kermit’s feelings about being green.

In the fashion of documentaries like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I Am Big Bird, and Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, Jim Henson: Idea Man talks a welcome walk down memory lane. This classically composed film looks back at Henson’s unlikely revolutionary act with The Muppets. Henson, who died in 1990 at age 53, appears in extensive archival footage, while contemporaries like Frank Oz and Jennifer Connelly reflect on working with him. His ex-wife, Jane Nebel, provides a key voice, as do the perspectives of his children.

Idea Man features a treasure trove of Muppets’ material. That comes as no surprise given that Disney acquired the Muppets in 2004. One might be cynical that Idea Man therefore plays on Disney+ alongside a chorus of Muppet classics and programs produced following the deal, but it’s also a welcome, and mostly elevated, behind-the-scenes tale. The film offers a mostly celebratory affair—upbeat to a fault—and it’s admittedly hard to find a bad word about the Muppets.

Howard finds a moving arc by connecting the stories of Jim Henson, the idea man, and Jim Henson, the family man. Idea Man tells how Henson and Nebel fell in love at the University of Maryland. They bonded over puppets, and she quickly became the Miss Piggy to his Kermit. The doc explains how they founded Muppets, Inc. in 1958, and fashioned future pop culture icons out of crude items. Kermit the Frog, for example, has an old coat and ping pong balls in his DNA. For Rowlf the Dog, it was a halved basketball and shaggy material. However, the crudeness of the puppetry was—and remains—part of the Muppets’ charm. Nostalgia and innocence make the Muppets more endearing than cheesy to adults and kids, respectively.

Idea Man finds a portrait of a true innovator, however, when Nebel, Oz, and other peers tell how Henson accepted an offer to do a season of children’s television. But the interviewees add some context and explain how Henson’s real love was animation. Howard injects the film with frames of Henson’s experimental images. Henson’s animation evokes the work of Norman McLaren with its jazzy improvisational style. Animated rhythms would imagine the sound in Henson’s free-flowing, if uncommercial work. (It’s too bad he didn’t have the NFB to offer a creative outlet!) The lure for Sesame Street, the interviewees share, was an agreement that Henson could create experimental animation. Howard cuts in the unique songs with which Henson honed his artistic chops while teaching kids how to count.

Told with a mix of straightforward interviews and sequences shot in a strange cubist environment tiled with TV screens—an odd set that seems lifted from a bad 1990s’ sci-fi film—Idea Man has an awkwardness to the delivery that one usually doesn’t find in a Howard film. However, the archival material frequently outweighs the relatively peculiar framing that introduces clips of Kermit, Miss Piggy, and company. These looks back at the Muppets warm the heart and evoke hearty laughs over gags that are decades old.

Moreover, the film finds an engaging discussion by looking at Henson’s journey with the Muppets. It considers the relationship between artistic integrity and commercial success as interviewees tell how Henson struggled with experimental side-projects to feed his creative impulses. At the same time, his efforts to go bigger with the Muppets, like bringing them to prime time, didn’t please prospective broadcasters. Staying true to his vision, the film shows, let him make the Muppets successful on his own terms. Clips from the heyday of the Muppets offer a who’s who of A-listers—Roger Moore, Rita Moreno, and Raquel Welch—singing with Kermit and flirting with Miss Piggy.

Howard also elevates the story by digging into the final act of Henson’s career before its premature end. Idea Man sees an innovator using his success with the puppets to advance puppetry as a serious art form. The documentary portrays Henson’s films The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1985) as movies ahead of their time. The cult films enjoy reappraisal and Idea Man should help situate them as ambitious works of an auteur.

The film finds a poignant endnote as Howard returns to Henson’s dual roles as idea man and family man. Throughout the commentary, his kids express obvious pride over their father’s accomplishments. But they can’t and don’t hide the fact that he was a workaholic. Stories tell of Henson flying back and forth between London and New York to juggle his responsibilities with exhaustion overtaking whatever little free time he had. By the film’s end, it’s clear that Henson’s prioritization of work over his family and health took its toll.

The lesson of Henson’s story is therefore bittersweet. He united families while never quite getting to enjoy his own. This final lesson of Henson’s story proves especially poignant.

Jim Henson: Idea Man streams on Disney+ beginning May 31.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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