Jim Henson Idea Man review: Ron Howard’s Disney+ doc will give families a new view on the man who made the Muppets

The documentary features new interviews and rediscovered archival footage.
Jim Henson paints Kermit in Jim Henson Idea Man - credit: Disney+
Jim Henson paints Kermit in Jim Henson Idea Man - credit: Disney+ /

When Jim Henson shockingly passed away at age 53 in 1990, it devastated a generation of fans of shows like The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and more. But what Ron Howard’s new documentary, which hits Disney+ tomorrow (May 31) suggests is that we also lost a non-stop waterfall of ideas from a man who seemed to always know he was running out of time.

Peppered with new interviews featuring his long-time collaborators like Frank Oz, as well as his children who have since gone on to join the family business, the real draw of this documentary is archival footage from home movies, public appearances – including the never-released pilot episode of The Orson Welles Show – and more that allow Henson to tell at least part of his story in his own words. It’s a uniquely moving experience that will bring anyone raised on his aforementioned shows – or movies like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth – to tears as it explores a life of endless creativity cut off too short.

Born in 1936, Henson was razor-focused on the art of puppetry from a young age. While the documentary argues that perhaps what he was more interested in were the unique possibilities of film and television, it was through puppets that he pushed the envelope and created short art films that appealed to both kids and adults. Similarly, the documentary shows how Henson’s goal was never to completely revolutionize children’s television… It just sort of happened through luck and circumstance, and Henson was, in fact, extremely good at it.

Jim Henson Idea Man - credit: Disney+ /

Along the way, the brisk hour and forty-five-minute doc shows off the slow development of the Muppets from the earliest ads and bits Henson did on late-night shows. We also get to see how it was really Sesame Street that helped him and his troop explode. The Muppet Show is where Henson’s passions and interests lay, but it was Sesame that put him on the map, and perhaps may be his most enduring legacy.

Where Idea Man falls short is the more complicated aspects of Henson’s life. By all accounts, he was an introvert except when talking about his job, which was always, and endlessly giving and collaborative with the people around him. But over the course of his life, even his children note that coming home for dinner was just a short stop between his time at the office. His wife, Jane, who was once a near-equal partner in the business, was increasingly shunted to the side as Henson believed she was supposed to fill the matriarchal mother role, while he went to work, ultimately leading to their separation. And nearly skirted over entirely, Henson was raised by Christian Scientists, and though the documentary notes he did not follow their teachings – and historically he left the church in his twenties – he also waited nearly three days to go to a hospital after contracting his ultimately fatal illness.

This is, frankly, in line with a lot of other documentaries on Disney+ that provide a lot of depth and heart about a Disney-related subject (Disney bought The Henson Company except Sesame Street in 1989, something the documentary also all but skips past), but tend to present some more difficult subjects in order to differentiate themselves from promotional fluff, while never digging too deeply into any subjects that could make the viewer feel bad, rather than teary-eyed and hopeful.

Jim Henson Idea Man - credit: Disney+ /

Would this documentary have been better if it explored Jim Henson’s son Brian Henson’s off-hand statement late in the runtime that his father was looking forward to casually dating after breaking up with his mother? It certainly would be a different movie, and perhaps one that explored the cracks having a workaholic creative for a father can cause in a family. But that’s certainly not Howard’s goal here, and it’s hard to imagine making Frank Oz, Rita Moreno, Jennifer Connelly, and the Henson family sit down to throw Jim Henson under the bus would have illuminated more about the human condition.

It also would have definitely made the whole endeavor less family-friendly (per the purview of this site), versus the doc we get. Which, other than a few adult situational references here and there, will instead inspire children to find out more about the wonderful shows and movies Henson created.

As is, we get to see what a genius-level artist can create with the limited time he has on Earth. None of us have what Jim Henson had, or ever will. But what the documentary suggests is that at least a little part of the legacy Henson left us is that we can all, in our own ways, take the precious time we have to give the world the greatest gift of all: ideas.

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