With 'Jim Henson Idea Man,' Ron Howard renews appreciation for the Muppet mastermind

All hail Jim Henson, now and forever.

Puppeteer, Muppeteer, maker of worlds. No one apart from Walt Disney has created so many significant characters with so far a reach. At its height, “The Muppet Show” had a global audience of 235 million; generations of children have been raised on Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Oscar, Bert, Ernie and, of course, Kermit, and if any of those names need explanation, you must have led a very sheltered life.

Ron Howard has directed a documentary on the man, the artist, the innovator: “Jim Henson Idea Man,” which premieres Friday on Disney+. If, strictly speaking, it’s not all one could ask for, it’s only because one is greedy for more. Could I have used more than a passing reference to “Fraggle Rock,” conceived as “a show that stops war”? Sure. Did I miss the Muppets’ fabulous, fruitful pre-”Sesame Street” years as variety-show guests? A little. Would I have liked to hear more from the late Jane Henson, Jim’s wife and first collaborator on the Washington, D.C.-based “Sam and Friends”? Indubitably. But, as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in “Pat and Mike,” “What’s there is choice.”

Howard does a fine job of communicating the range of Henson’s interests and activities, the public celebrity and the inner Jim (such as he let it be known), the team leader and the family man, and knits a cavalcade of old and new clips and interviews into a film with narrative clarity and emotional force. It would be the very incurious, unreceptive viewer who leaves “Idea Man” without a heightened appreciation of the human and his work.

Working with the cooperation of the Henson family — his four surviving children, all of whom went into the family business in some form, are newly interviewed — Howard has had access to the archives, including sketchbooks and journals and early experimental films. But though “Idea Man” may be authorized, and it is certainly admiring, it doesn’t feel sanitized. I suppose it might be possible to find someone who worked for Henson and had a bad experience, and the ups and downs of his marriage are laid out here for your inspection. Yet there’s too much testimony from his closest associates to believe him anything but a great boss, an open collaborator, a man who made art for the right reasons and a loving, if often absent, family man.

“Jim created out of innocence,” says Frank Oz, the Piggy to his Kermit, the Bert to his Ernie, who estimates that they spent half their time off-script. “He was so internal and quiet that his inner life must have been sparkling.”

What sets the Muppets apart from other puppets of the screen? (Not necessarily above, given the brilliance of Burr Tillstrom and Shari Lewis.) Besides Henson’s technical innovations — most famously the use of video monitors that allowed the puppeteers to frame their performance in real time — they are a company, or several companies, composed of many players.

There are the “Muppet Show” Muppets — Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and Animal and that lot — who are now the intellectual (and I suppose actual) property of Disney, which has used them well and ill. There are the “Sesame Street” Muppets, now owned by the Sesame (formerly the Children’s Television) Workshop. There are the characters Henson developed for “The Dark Crystal,” “Labyrinth” and “Fraggle Rock,” without going into the television series mounted by the Jim Henson Company after his untimely death in 1990, including “Dinosaurs” and “Earth to Ned.”

And they’re companies in the theatrical sense too, in that the characters can play other characters while remaining themselves, as in “Muppet Treasure Island” and “A Muppet Christmas Carol.” They have screen personas and something like “real-life” personas, on display when they interact spontaneously with the real world, appearing on talk shows or presenting an Oscar.

Puppets are magic; the amount of life and expression a talented operator can impart to a figure with no more moving parts than a mouth and an arm — like Kermit, originally made from Henson’s mother’s old green coat and a ping pong ball cut in two for eyes — is astonishing. And it becomes only more magical when we see the puppeteers at work, which we do here, often. There’s a beauty and joyfulness in the performance above and beyond what’s being performed.

Henson often said he didn’t set out to be a puppeteer; he just saw it as a way to get into television. But the world will tell you what you’re good at.

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