‘Jim Henson Idea Man’ Review: A Heartfelt, If Safe, Tribute to a Singular Figure

Universally beloved figures are increasingly rare these days, with a distressing number of our former heroes having been outed as one kind of monster or another in recent years. Jim Henson is a notable exception. The creator of the Muppets remains as revered today as he was during his too-short life, an enduring icon of wholesomeness whose legend has only grown since he died in 1990 at the age of 53. Among his legion of admirers is Ron Howard, whose documentary “Jim Henson Idea Man” premiered at Cannes earlier this month and will be available to stream on Disney+ this Friday.

A multihyphenate if ever there were one, the puppeteer, filmmaker, animator and actor is described here as both a “boy genius” and “very rare creature” who was “so internal and quiet that his inner life must have been sparkling.” It’s certainly true that his life’s work sparkled, and not just Kermit and company: “Idea Man” also gives pride of place to “The Dark Crystal,” “Fraggle Rock,” “The Labyrinth” and “Sesame Street,” not to mention the more outré endeavors some of the film’s interviewees would argue were his true — if unrealized — passion.

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Perhaps most revelatory to those who know Henson only as the father of the Muppets (which is to say, most people) is his experimental filmmaking, with 1965’s Oscar-nominated “Time Piece” being the most emblematic of his sensibility. (Watching the short, it’s difficult not to wish Henson had written and directed an episode of the original “Twilight Zone” before it went off the air that same year.) Playful and strange, it was partly born of his fixation on time and musicality — the idea that almost everything could be measured in beats and broken down to its temporal parts, including, most obviously, a life. His older brother Paul died in 1956 at the age of 26, a tragedy that puts the younger Henson’s belief in the power of humor in a more revealing light.

The usual archival footage and talking-head interviews are complemented by some fittingly clever animations, most of which serve as transitions between scenes or brief illustrations of how iconic Muppets were first created: the jacket and ping-pong balls that became Kermit, the basketball that was cut in half for Rowlf’s head. This is when “Idea Man” is at its best, but unfortunately they feel like occasional stylistic flourishes rather than a driving force behind the documentary. Frank Oz, Henson’s longtime collaborator and protege, is the most frequent interviewee, with Rita Moreno, Jennifer Connelly, and Henson’s children all sharing stories as well.

Henson grew up in rural Mississippi where, by his own admission, he never played with or even saw a puppet. His true passion, as with many children of his era, was television — the only reason he got into puppetry, in fact, was as a means of working on TV. In some respects, he was a victim of his own success: The bigger “Sesame Street” got, the more he wanted to parlay its popularity into unrelated Broadway shows, ballets and even amusement parks that would allow him to explore his creativity in new ways. Henson is portrayed here as being creative and restless in equal measure, always afraid of being boxed in and prevented from pursuing his increasingly out-there ideas.

That included “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence,” a 30-minute pilot that never received a series order because every network passed on it, not to mention a brief stint on “Saturday Night Live” that appears to have been yet another square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation. Henson died at the peak of his artistic and financial success, and one of the many tragedies of his untimely death is that we never got to see what he might have done with a blank check and total creative freedom.

The result likely would have been less conventional than “Idea Man,” whose feel-good charms are undercut only slightly by its adherence to the tried-and-true nonfiction formula. It is, mostly for better but occasionally for worse, exactly what you’d expect of a documentary about Jim Henson directed by Ron Howard: sweet, heartwarming and rather unadventurous. If it’s easy to wish “Idea Man” were as bold as its subject, though, it’s just as easy to be won over by this deservedly heartfelt tribute to him.

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