There comes a time in one’s young life when one realizes (SPOILER ALERT!) Big Bird of “Sesame Street” and worldwide fame isn’t actually a very large, talking bird, but a human being inside a costume.
Hopefully that time comes before one goes off to college.
However, I have to say that before experiencing the sweet, touching and fascinating documentary “I Am Big Bird,” I had never really considered the amazing feats of dexterity performed by one Caroll Spinney, 81, the man who has been inside Big Bird for 46 years and counting.
About halfway into the film, after directors Dave La Mattina and Chad N. Walker have told us about Spinney’s background (his father was harsh and abusive; classmates taunted and bullied him for his artistic ways) and have reminded us of Big Bird’s status as a worldwide icon to generations of children, they wisely pause to delve into a (partly animated) discussion and explanation of the mechanics of bringing B-squared to life.
First, there’s the matter of those heavy orange “legs,” i.e., pants, and the big feet. Spinney/Big Bird must navigate Sesame Street without tripping over props or people or puppets.
Spinney wears a small monitor that allows him to see what audiences at home are seeing when they watch Big Bird. But that means if Big Bird has to exit to the left, Spinney must walk to his right. Snippets of the script for the day are taped around the monitor. He’s got to keep track of his lines and not miss cues from the other actors.
With his right arm continually held above his head, Spinney controls Big Bird’s beak movements. (His right pinky handles Big Bird’s eyebrows.) With his left hand, he controls Big Bird’s arms.
Plus he’s doing that famous Big Bird voice.
The trick is in making it seem effortless, something Spinney has been doing for nearly a half-century. Like the actors who voice the characters on “The Simpsons,” he has portrayed one of the most recognizable figures in pop culture history — yet he can walk down any street unrecognized.
“I Am Big Bird” is a loving, respectful (if at times shamelessly sentimental) portrayal of Spinney, complete with old home movies, behind-the-scenes footage of “Sesame Street” tapings and Spinney/Big Bird’s journey to China, interviews with Spinney’s second wife and his grown children and testimonials from colleagues.
Even at 81, Spinney retains a childlike sense of wonder and an undying devotion to Big Bird. We hear of a few rifts he had with a director, and Spinney talks briefly of having suicidal thoughts after his first wife left him. And there’s a startling anecdote about how Spinney/Big Bird was invited to ride on the Challenger space shuttle and even met with the astronauts and took part in some training exercises, only to be told the logistics of that 4,000-feather costume couldn’t be worked out. Spinney was replaced on that ill-fated mission by a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe.
These sobering moments aside, the great bulk of “I Am Big Bird” is a Sunny Day, Sweepin’ the Clouds Away, brightly colored tribute to the man and his art.
And why not. If the life and times of Big Bird can’t make for a sunny documentary, we’re doomed.