A great look at a great: ‘Jim Henson: Idea Man’ packs a lifetime of great moments into less than two hours

How wonderfully appropriate it is that Ron Howard would direct a documentary on the great Jim Henson—and how unsurprising it is that the film is, indeed, wonderful.

Jim Henson: Idea Man covers the career of the great Muppet creator from beginning to end. From his start as a teenager directing puppets at a local TV station, through the creation of his pioneering films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, the film packs a lot into a feature-length production that could’ve easily been a lot longer. The same could be said for the man himself: The dude did a helluva lot of stuff in a relatively, and tragically, short amount of time.

It was one of the craziest death notices I had ever heard when news came out that Henson had died in 1990 at only 53 years old. What the hell? The man who gave us Kermit, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Fozzie Bear, Animal and so much more was gone decades before he should’ve been. He had done so much in his short life, but it’s also fair to think he was just getting started.

Howard’s documentary uses archival footage of Henson himself, along with archival and recent footage of Frank Oz, wife Jane Henson, Henson’s kids, and stars like Jennifer Connelly (of the great Labyrinth) to tell the story of this extraordinary man.

One of the most amazing stories involves the origins of his most beloved Kermit, who originated from one of Henson’s mom’s old coats, paired with a ping pong ball cut in half. I forgot that Kermit wasn’t really a frog at first, just a little green guy who sometimes wore a wig and had a woman’s voice (that of Jane).

The Muppets were never supposed to be for children, but they had their breakthrough on Sesame Street, a legacy that carries on today. Henson got to see his wishes fulfilled with the more adult-oriented The Muppet Show after a failed run on Saturday Night Live. (Yes, the Muppets were part of the first season of Saturday Night Live.)

The doc goes well beyond Henson’s puppetry, including glimpses of his fabulous independently produced short films, and short films inserted into Sesame Street episodes. It wasn’t until this movie that I realized Henson was the man behind some of these Sesame Street short films from my childhood, which I loved.

Despite being less than two hours long, Jim Henson: Idea Man feels pretty complete and kind of perfect (although I don’t recall seeing the great Emmit Otter getting his due). Hearing about Henson’s death today is almost as devastating as it was 34 years ago. Like Walt Disney, it feels like he’s really still around, in some way.

Jim Henson: Idea Man is now streaming on Disney+.

YouTube video