Credit: Disney+
by Greg Nussen Featured Film Streaming Scene

Jim Henson Idea Man — Ron Howard

May 21, 2024

In 1969, in the same year that Sesame Street was born, Jim Henson wrote and directed a 53-minute dystopian Twilight Zone-style film called The Cube. After six years creating puppets and a local Emmy win for Sam and Friends on WRC-TV in the nation’s capital, Henson was just beginning to become known as the country’s most prominent children’s entertainer, a label that, apparently, terrified him; an artist of wide-ranging talent and ambition, Henson feared getting boxed in. The Cube was about a man (Richard Schaal) who awakes in a virtual reality cube, in which others can come and go as they please, while he is stuck, forever confined to mysteriously changing furniture and escalating bizarre challenges. The metaphor for Henson’s life is hardly subtle.

Though a relatively unknown film, Ron Howard seems to use The Cube as a touchstone in his latest project. Across the runtime of Jim Henson Idea Man, nearly all of the talking heads are interviewed on a set resembling the 1969 film, as archival footage and photographs are projected on the ever-shifting cube-like screens in the background. The suggestion seems to be that Henson spent most of his tragically short life in something of a prison: relegated to making puppetry primarily for children and their parents, yet dreaming of artistic ambitions far beyond the scope of what the general public allowed him to do.

Other than this slightly cynical thread, Howard’s documentary is otherwise a fairly paint-by-numbers affair. Jim Henson Idea Man charts Henson’s life arc from a boyish fascination with the magic of television in rural Mississippi all the way to his untimely death from bacterial pneumonia at the age of 53, along the way trailblazing a new path for the possibilities of puppetry and fantasy. Howard hits all of the main Wikipedia talking points: his Christian Scientist upbringing, his close friendship with his older brother Paul, his meeting of his wife Jane (and their tumultuous marriage), the band-formation of The Muppets’ early incarnation: Frank Oz, Jerry Uhl, and Don Sahlin, and their collective brief stint on Saturday Night Live. In explicitly hagiographic terms, the film also glowingly speaks of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Henson’s (moderate) diversion into the epic world-building features of The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986).

Idea Man offers a mostly topographical overview of Henson’s life and career, with illuminating, if all-together too brief, glimpses into his “sparkling inner life,” as Frank Oz suggests. Through interviews with Henson’s surviving children Brian, Lisa, Cheryl, and Heather, Jim is revealed as a tirelessly passionate and ambitious artist who frequently had difficulty putting his work aside. But the film is idolatrous almost out of necessity. It’s a film produced by Disney, made by Disney, and distributed by Disney, in what is ultimately an advertisement for Disney+ to assure its viewers that despite Henson’s passing, the brand is in strong stewardship. The last 10 minutes is nothing but brazen commercialism.

Regardless, it’s a nicely made commercial with elegantly edited sequences of rarely seen footage, amongst which is a segment from a never-aired, Orson Welles-hosted talk show from 1979 where Welles compares Henson to Rasputin. Howard takes care to show us that Henson was a more expansive artist than his most famous creations; here, there are clips of his experimental films, his explicitly leftist television documentary Youth 68, and tantalizing mention of Henson’s ambitions for unrealized Broadway plays, ballets, and operas. Yet, for a film called Idea Man, and which purports to give us access to such an unparalleled genius brain, Howard is still confined to the surface. It’s a good thing that the surface is still so mesmerizing, because, as Oz says of Henson, he had a “sophisticated understanding of nonsense and absurdity.” One just wishes Howard’s documentary did, too.

DIRECTOR: Ron Howard;  DISTRIBUTOR: Disney+;  IN THEATERS: May 24;  STREAMINGMay 31;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 51 min.