Friday, May 31, 2024

“Jim Henson: Idea Man”: The Life Behind The Genius Creator of “The Muppet Show”

 By José Alberto Hermosillo


“Jim Henson: Idea Man” is a fresh new approach to address the life and body of work of the genius creator of “The Muppet Show” Jim Henson. The documentary is awe-inspiring, entertaining, and quite enjoyable.

Ron Haward. Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo ©2024 FestivalinLA
 
In “Jim Herson: Idea Man,” Award-winning director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Thirteen Lives”) presents a linear, structured narrative mainly focusing on the work of the Muppets creator, not on his personal life. People who adored the show can consider it a treasure. Not so much for hardcore fans who say that plenty more information is missing, including Jim’s cause of death. A bacterial infection at the age of 53 - even though this documentary is a Disney Plus movie, not Pixar’s “Coco,” a profound animation that reaches the other side of the world of death. 
 
The main reason Ron Howard selected the material light-handedly in the documentary on Jim Henson is that he wanted to keep it hopeful and not sentimental. Howard felt like he was offering a real insight into the life of the creator of the puppets of “Sesame Street.” Howard saw the paradox between his material and Henson’s experimental films, which were very optimistic, human, and revealing.
 
After years of struggle, the young puppeteer with an enormous desire to work in television had his first successful attempt with the inclusion of his Muppets characters interacting with humans in “Sesame Street” during the Summer of 1969. 

Time magazine featuring Big Bird in 1970. Cover credit: Bill Pierce.

A year later, Time magazine featured his Big Bird on the cover with the quote: “… It’s not only the best children’s TV show in history, it is also one of the best parents’ shows as well.”
 
After the 
“Sesame Street” success, Henson could not find producers to make the “Muppets Show” a reality in the United States. Then, the production took a more international approach when Sir Lew Grade, the owner of the British ATV Starion, produced two specials with him: “Julie on Sesame Street” and “Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.”
 
Sir. Grade was familiar with puppet television programs and offered Henson a deal to record “Muppets Show” at the Elstree Studios in England. The deal also included an international broadcasting contract with more than one hundred countries to air the show. 

Before departing to the U.K., Henson set aside his syndication and other union contracts with the Writers’ Guild and started production in London as soon as possible.
 
During the show’s taping, the producers followed and succeeded in booking big Hollywood stars such as Diana Ross, Henry Belafonte, and Tina Turner to participate as special guests of “The Muppet Show.”
 
Aired on Sundays, “The Muppet Show” had an astronomical acceptance. During the last three months of 1976, it was viewed by 14 million in Great Britain.
 
Before making the documentary, the Henson family was reluctant to have the creative patriarch’s image and private life going public for numerous reasons. Looking at the archive, Ron Howard saw different options to approach his newest adventure. He focused on the entire family behind the creator and, of course, on the unforgettable characters.

Howard unfolds almost a biographical story that includes fabulous archival clips, treasured interviews, glorious footage behind the cameras, and some staggering and boundless graphic material that will keep us wondering more about the conception and embodiment of those dear and unforgettable characters and the creator himself. Disney Plus and a dozen other producers, counting members of the Henson family and the estate’s heirs, proceeded to produce the new documentary.

The music, produced by Hans Zimmer and composed by David Fleming (Blue Planet), is driven by playfulness and joy. Fleming adjusted to the time compression and moved around emotions dealing with ambition, creativity, a higher spirit, and Henson’s joyful place. Fleming focused on the diversity of the characters and the universality of the inspiring creations.

"Jim Herson: Idea Man" Panel. Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo ©2024 FestivalinLA

In the documentary, the evolution of Henson’s story connects with our memories of “The Muppet Show” and our personal childhood experiences at that time as we identified with Jim and his diverse characters.

The editor cleaned up the interviews with the Henson family using AI (Artificial Intelligence). The interviews give a unique flow to the linear structure. Those recordings were demanding and energizing for everyone, including the animation crew. According to the panel presented by Deadline at Vidiots in Eagle Rock, California, everyone who participated in Henson’s documentary wanted to make it right.

Jim Henson and his Muppet characters. 

The documentary was made to keep Jim’s voice active in a preservation form and to denote the evolution of Mr. Henson from his participation in “Sesame Street” into “The Muppets Show” and subsequently in the feature films proceeded and produced by the Jim Henson Company.
 
The interviews recalled the experiences of working with Mr. Henson with Academy Award-winners
 Jennifer Connelly and Rita Moreno, which are essential for audiences to sympathize with the main character and his creations. Late in the game, the producers of “Idea Man” continue finding more material regarding Henson’s work.

Ron Howard continues finding subjects with stories that really matter, and it is fascinating to discover, in this case, Jim’s early work. This documentary is about Henson’s journey and the challenges of risking everything he had to deliver one of the most transcendental shows in history for the entire family.

 

I applaud Howard’s team’s courage and tenacity in bringing to light the work and creations of the “Idea Man,” who, by creating one of the most influential TV shows, helped millions of children and parents learn, accept, and make this world a better place to live.


Vidiots screening, Eagle Rock, California. Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo ©2024 FestivalinLA


Vidiots’ Jim Henson’s movies on DVD display. Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo ©2024 FestivalinLA

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