Director: Ron Howard Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Alex Rockwell, Brian Henson Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 111 min. MPAA: TV-PG

In 1990, the Muppets appeared in a TV special, “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson.” The Muppets, uncertain of this Jim fellow, unravel the history of the famed puppeteer and director. They learn of his recent death while reading letters from those he inspired. They read more letters, holding back tears. “Jim died?” says Gonzo. “But we were just starting to get to know him.” We may never know as much about Jim as his closest family and friends, but Idea Man comes closer to understanding this artistic genius.

Director Ron Howard combines interviews, archival footage, and clever animation to tell Jim’s history. From his humble beginnings on Washington television to his tragic demise amid signing with Disney, all his accomplishments in TV and movies are covered. Audiences can expect that much from a Jim Henson documentary, seeing as there’s been more than one tribute special for his accomplishments. Howard’s film provides a bit more of a complete picture that mixes the interviews of associates and family to paint Henson in a professional and personal light.

Placed in a balanced and palatable depiction, many sides of the creative puppeteer are revealed. Frank Oz speaks of how he and Jim played off each other with ease, making their duos of Kermit & Fozzy and Bert & Ernie natural extensions of their creative play. Jim’s son, Brian Henson, speaks openly about his father’s quiet nature and how he transformed into a more vivacious person when Brian was old enough to work in entertainment. Various puppeteers and creative forces detail Jim’s devotion to art while closer friends outline his negligence of family and health that would ultimately lead to his unfortunate demise.

While the film doesn’t pull as many punches as previous documentaries, the passion of Jim becomes a prime focus. He placed a personal drive in his work. When failing to sell The Muppet Show for years and facing harsh criticism of his 1980s movies (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth), his more depressive side would reveal itself. Why wouldn’t it? When a test screening of The Dark Crystal ended with a dissatisfied executive leaving the room in silence, that has to sting. But that’s what made Jim so unique, as he was willing to try more and risk more. He didn’t settle on his successes of Sesame Street and Muppets. He wanted to craft compelling works of imagination like The Storyteller and positive-message programs like Fraggle Rock. He came a long way from his karaoke puppets of Sam & Friends and the violence-infused slapstick of the Wilkins Coffee commercials.

A natural direction for this documentary to focus on is Jim’s short film about time. It’s been mentioned in various other documentaries, but it bares repeating; Jim was a prisoner of time. He wanted to do so much and accomplished an astounding array of puppet productions in movies and television. Yet, it never seemed to be enough. It will never be enough for someone desiring to be creative. For Jim, there was always something on the horizon. There was some new technology to explore and new stories to tell. Tomorrow always seemed so exciting and with a promise that it would always come. Jim couldn’t see that mortal cliff headed his way and perhaps part of him didn’t want to. To lose Jim when it just seemed like he was getting started with Disney was a shock to everybody, as they figured he’d be working on something new the next day, be it a Muppet special for TV show or a new movie bound by fantasy.

Idea Man is one of the stronger Jim Henson documentaries for how much essential ground it covers of the master of puppets. Howard honestly could have gone on for hours with this material, turning it more into a miniseries with how many productions Jim was involved with. That’s the biggest shortfall of a film like this and a poetic highlight of Henson’s mindset. There just isn’t enough time to cover everything and do everything despite our desire and passion to explore. It’s that grappling with mortality that drives us to find meaning in what brings us joy. This is why it should come as no surprise that when Frank Oz is asked what he would say to Jim if he were still alive, he’d go back to the way they spoke during their puppeteering performances. That’s the way Frank remembers Jim Henson, where they were most comfortable with their hands in the air, stuffed in felt and playing off each other with great wit.

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