For almost fifty years, one man has brought to life two of the most popular and enduring characters in children's entertainment: Sesame Street's Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. The man beneath the yellow feathers and green fur is Caroll Spinney, and that disparate duo are his yin and yang, dual aspects of the master puppeteer as revealed in the entertaining new documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.
Spinney's life began as the son of a doting mother and abusive father who's love of puppetry eventually led him to a fateful meeting with his idol Jim Henson in 1969, just as Sesame Street was taking shape. Asked to join the eclectic crew of "Muppeteers", Spinney created the childlike Big Bird (along with puppet designer Kermit Love) and the cantankerous Oscar (originally orange) for the groundbreaking public television program (now in its 45th season), winning numerous awards throughout the years and countless young fans around the globe for generations.
But not all has been "sunny days" for Spinney, and directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker don't shy away from, for example, his suicidal thoughts, his messy divorce from his first wife, or a brush with destiny that almost ended his life in one of the greatest tragedies in American history. In the film's most poignant sequence, Spinney as Big Bird is seen heartbreakingly performing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at the memorial service for his mentor Henson, who died unexpectedly at age 53 in 1990.
Now a young 81, married to the love of his life and father of 3 and grandfather of 4, Spinney may have made his name as the most famous bird in the world but his Life is far from "for the birds".
And now for another kind of "bird", of the slangy British female variety...
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an unusual sequel these days as it features no dinosaurs, superheroes or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But it does have Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, along with most* of the original cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the sleeper hit of four years ago also directed by John Madden (of Shakespeare in Love fame) that was apparently successful enough with its older art house audiences to merit another visit.
Like the first Marigold Hotel, the second centers on a group of mature English expatriates living in India at the titular establishment, run by an overly-enthusiastic Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) who this time out is even more unbearably frantic as he is is simultaneously preparing for his wedding and (with Maggie's assistance) looking to expand his business with a second location. The rest of the characters have their own little dramas: Judi starts a new career while failing to connect romantically with Bill Nighy, who is still married to Maggie's Downton Abbey frenemy Penelope Wilton; saucy Celia Imrie (seen reading Fifty Shades of Grey, naturally) is juggling two rich Indian beaus; Ronald Pickup is trying to stop a hit on his girlfriend he inadvertently set up with a one-eyed rickshaw driver; and newcomer Richard Gere, who may or may not be a wannabe novelist and/or hotel inspector, has the hots for Dev's mother.
If it all sounds a bit forced and more than a little silly, it is. But the game cast shuffle through the lightly amusing proceedings efficiently enough to make it moderately enjoyable, even if it is mostly a Disney Channel Movie made by and for old folks.
*Tom Wilkinson's gay character died in the first film and thus does not appear as a ghost, à la Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor is he resurrected from the grave, à la Gandalf, in this film. Told you this was an unusual sequel for these days.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story: B
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: B-
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are now available on Blu-ray and/or DVD:
Review by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.