I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Unrated but suitable for all.

Theater: St. Anthony Main.

"Sesame Street's" Big Bird is a children's character as well known as Mickey Mouse. And certainly better loved. That's largely thanks to the man inside the costume. Caroll Spinney has been teaching and delighting generations of kids since our tall, yellow feathered friend debuted in 1969. Co-directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker's affectionate salute to the fellow who hatched the bird is a touching, overdue round of applause.

While Big Bird radiates gentle tenderness, Spinney had a harsh childhood. A puppeteer and cartoonist from his early years, he faced a critical, sometimes violent father and bullying schoolmates. He was discovered by Jim Henson after flubbing a presentation at an industry gathering. Joining Henson's TV team was like oxygen for the sad-natured Spinney. He transformed the ill-defined bird into a sweet, inquisitive optimist who became the star of the show.

The film is honest about the difficulties complicating Spinney's life. The end of his first marriage triggered such painful anxiety that he considered jumping from their ninth-floor New York apartment. Now 81, he has a new long-term love and, though playing the character is physically demanding, he's considering another five years. "He's an artist," one friend says, "and not many artists retire."


the surface

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Not rated but mature themes.

Theaters: Shakopee, Elk River.

As the film begins, Mitch Lowe (Sean Astin, not much seen since the "Lord of the Rings" era) moves through his lower-class home preparing to cruise Lake Michigan, without the cheery look of a guy planning a sunny afternoon out. It's not until he's far from his Milwaukee home base that we begin to understand why he looked at a cemetery en route.

His getaway is disrupted when he sees a crashed small plane with injured pilot Kerry (Chris Mulkey) clinging to a floating wing and a mysterious bag. Soon the strangers are in Mitch's shabby boat, lost, with no means of communication, facing problems like what sank Robert Redford in "All Is Lost."

This is the sort of film where you enjoy the cast even though the running time becomes a bit of a snore. Mulkey ("Whiplash," "Captain Phillips") creates a fine multiple-personality style for his character, who is knowledgeable, fierce and a complete grouch. "My mother told me, 'If you had another brain it'd be lonely,' " he growls. "Meeting you I know what she meant."

Astin balances his underdog's helpful intentions, limited resources and self-destructive depression. Their acting far outperforms the film's story­telling abilities. Directed by Gil Cates Jr. and written by Jeff Gendelman, the dialogue resembles the wordy conversation you hear in theater. You can sense trouble brewing when the film begins with the unforgivable cliché of a bedroom alarm clock. That's a bad way to start a day and a terrible way to start a movie.C.C.

A Q&A with Gendelman will be held Sunday at the Marcus Shakopee Theater after the 6 p.m. showing.

Where Hope Grows

⋆½ out of four stars

Rating: PG-13 for alcohol, sexual assault, language.

Theaters: Arbor Lakes, Coon Rapids, Eden Prairie, Lakeville.

A washed-up baseball player with a drinking problem seeks redemption — or, rather, redemption seeks him, in the form of a kindhearted grocery clerk with Down syndrome — in this unapologetic melodrama. What would otherwise be a somewhat tired advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous is given a twist by David DeSanctis as the aptly nicknamed Produce, who becomes a kind of spiritual role model to this lost soul. A film for anyone in the market for cheesy uplift.

Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post