Jim Henson Idea Man Review: Ron Howard's Doc About The Muppet Master Is Charming But Lacking

There's a delightful moment early in Ron Howard's documentary "Jim Henson Idea Man," where Henson, creator of the Muppets, appears on "The Orson Welles Show." Recounting his youth, Henson admits that when he was a child he had absolutely no interest in puppets, nor did he use puppets. Welles is overdramatically shocked. "You never saw a puppet?" the auteur turned talk-show host asks, incredulous. Henson didn't say those exact words, but he nods in agreement. It's a wonderful little anecdote: the man who is perhaps the most famous puppeteer to ever live didn't really care about puppets when he was younger. As "Idea Man" makes clear in its early moments, puppetry just sort of happened to Jim Henson. As a young guy obsessed with TV and filmmaking, Henson answered an ad for puppetry on a local TV station — and the rest is history. Henson was a natural, and his career (and puppets) would go on to greater things. 

It was a whirlwind life of creativity. And then, in 1990, at the age of 53, Henson died. His sudden death was a seismic moment; I was 7 when Henson died and yet the event of his passing is burned into my subconscious — it felt like the world had been knocked off its axis. How could such a person just up and die like that? Howard handles Henson's death awkwardly and with no real background info. Perhaps that's intentional — perhaps the filmmaker is trying to recreate the unexpected suddenness of Henson's death by dropping it in our laps. But it feels rushed, and "rushed" is a good way to describe "Idea Man." This is a frequently charming documentary, but it sprints through Henson's life like we're speed-reading his Wikipedia page. I wanted more. 

Jim Henson Idea Man gallops through Henson's life

Who was Jim Henson? In his own words, he was an idea man. While Henson will forever be associated with the Muppets and puppetry, he wanted to go beyond that. He wanted to make art, and had an almost insatiable hunger for creativity. After his early days climbing to small fame on local TV, "Idea Man" shows how Henson really hit it big when he joined forces with the Children's Television Workshop to help bring "Sesame Street" to life. This moment made Henson's career, but it also left him uneasy. He was suddenly thought of as a "children's entertainer," and he wanted to be so much more.

From here, "Idea Man" gallops through Henson's life, hitting all the big moments you'd expect: the creation of Kermit (made, we're, told, from an old coat and a ping-pong ball cut in half); the marriage between Henson and his wife Jane; the meeting of Henson's right-hand man and partner in puppetry, Frank Oz; the growth of Henson's studio; the making of "The Muppet Show"; the transition from TV to movies (including movies like "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth," that were only really embraced after Henson's death); and so on. These beats will be overly familiar to anyone who knows anything about Henson, and while Howard presents them in fun, affable ways — mixing media like archival footage and new animation created for the documentary — it all feels too light. The doc clocks in at 1 hour and 43 minutes, and I couldn't help but think a topic like Henson deserved more time. Then again, Henson's life was cut so tragically short that perhaps it's sensible that a documentary about his life should feel like it concludes too abruptly.

An average documentary

It's probably fair to say that Jim Henson changed the world for the better, but to Howard's credit, he hasn't made a hagiography. While there are no scandals to be found here, the doc doesn't shy away from Henson's flaws; he was constantly working, he was hard to pin-down as a person, his marriage crumbled. Still, the likability and the talent of Henson shine through nearly every moment of the documentary, reminding us what a massive loss Henson's death created. 

All of this is presented in a perfectly acceptable manner. But for a subject so innovative and groundbreaking, "Idea Man" feels rather standard. This is primarily a by-the-numbers doc that's geared to audiences who have almost no real knowledge of Henson, or merely want to see Howard play the hits. Jim Henson was a force of great creativity, and maybe someone will eventually get around to making something that attempts to match his magnetism. For now, we'll have to settle for a perfectly average doc about an un-average man. 

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

"Jim Henson Idea Man" will premiere May 31, 2024 on Disney+.