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film review

Caroll Spinney, left, and Kermit Love on the set of a Sesame Street production. Spinney has played Big Bird since his first appearance on the groundbreaking television program in 1969.Debra Spinney

Big Bird is eight feet tall, and every inch of him is happiness and sunshine. On the rare occasions he's critical, it's in the gentlest way. If Sesame Street's most famous character was a mission statement, it would be, "Be kind." Who would expect a documentary about the puppeteer behind the bird to be anything else?

That's right, "the puppeteer," singular. Only one man – Caroll Spinney – has played Big Bird since his first appearance on the groundbreaking television program in 1969. That novel piece of trivia drew the attention of co-directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker, who were looking for a new project to follow their first feature-length documentary, 2010's Brownstones to Red Dirt.

It's also enough to draw you in as a viewer. This is a character beloved by every generation of children since the first moon landing. Of course you want to know more about the person underneath all those feathers.

As with so many artists, Spinney had a lonely and troubled childhood. His mother encouraged his early interest in puppetry, taking him to Punch and Judy shows. But his father was a distant, abusive man. When he was old enough, Spinney joined the Air Force to get away from him. After four years of service, Spinney landed a job on The Bozo Show, where he honed a talent for puppetry, and creating multiple characters. Thanks to a fateful meeting with Jim Henson at a puppet festival, he landed his job on Sesame Street.

While Henson first thought of Big Bird – and Kermit Love built the puppet – Spinney breathed life into him. "I know I don't own Big Bird," Spinney says in the film. "But I own his soul, I feel." The childlike innocence, the sweetness, the kindness – all of it comes from Spinney, as the film repeatedly makes clear.

Sometimes, though, there's reason to be suspicious of the hagiography. The end of Spinney's first marriage, which lasted 11 years, is quickly glossed over. His ex-wife was mean and didn't appreciate him, is roughly the explanation we get. The same goes for Spinney's frequent arguments with Sesame Street director Jon Stone. He, too, was mean and didn't appreciate Spinney.

Even Spinney's three children put a happy face on hardly seeing him because he was so busy with the show. The man is blameless. He must have a dark side, however small. After all, he not only plays Big Bird, he's also Oscar the Grouch.

Still, there are two jarringly dark moments to balance out the film's sweet tone. One is the revelation that Big Bird was invited to be on the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, but couldn't go because the costume was too big; the other is the murder of a woman killed by Spinney's caretaker, and whose body was found on his property. (The caretaker pleaded guilty in 2006, and the crime still haunts the Spinneys.)

Otherwise, this is very much a heartwarming tribute, bordering on treacly. Cast members and performers, including Frank Oz, Bob McGrath and Sonia Manzano and Emilio Delgado, line up to sing Spinney's praises. Together, they remind you how special Sesame Street has always been, and how essential Big Bird is to the show's continued success.

Midway through the film, Spinney's wife says of him, "He really just wants to be liked." The same is true of this documentary.