Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Follow That Bird,’ 30 years later
When thinking back to my early years, the Summer of 1985 stands out in my mind for several reasons. It just so happens that during that Summer, my favorite film was released on the world.
However, I wouldn’t see that particular film until a year later, on VHS. The only film I can recall seeing that Summer, was Follow That Bird, the first major feature film to utilize the Sesame Street characters from the popular PBS television show.
As our Summer Vacation in California began to wind down, I recall my Dad taking my cousin and I to a theater down the road from my Grandma’s. In that darkened auditorium, we were soon witness to seeing one of America’s most beloved television shows, come to life on the big screen.
As the film begins, a group of birds calling themselves The Feathered Friends, pride themselves on placing orphan birds in loving homes. One that has recently been brought to their attention, is Big Bird himself. One of the group’s members, Miss Finch, decides to help him.
After convincing Big Bird that he would be more comfortable with an all-bird family, Big Bird leaves Sesame Street, and moves to Ocean View, Illinois. He is placed with a bird-family named The Dodo’s, but try as he may, Big Bird doesn’t feel comfortable in his new home. This leads to him running away, intending to get back to Sesame Street.
When a news program reports of Big Bird running away from his new home, Miss Finch claims she is going to find Big Bird and return him to the Dodo’s. Meanwhile, Big Bird’s friends on Sesame Street decide to head out on a cross-country trip to find him.
Along the way, Big Bird runs into some helpful people, but also has to stay one-step ahead of The Sleaze Brothers (played by actors Dave Thomas & Joe Flaherty), who want to catch Big Bird and display him in their 3rd-rate circus.
Even though the children of the 1980’s were bombarded with toy commercials disguised as television shows, I think many of us can agree, that the rampant “PC/protect-the-children” vibe was not as prevalent as it is today. The Care Bears film had an evil head in a book that wanted to take over the world, and even the Disney-produced Return to Oz had some scenes that traumatized quite a few people. Though Follow That Bird never got into such dark territory, it still was treated moreso like a real movie, even with its numerous songs.
The film also tries to assimilate Sesame Street into our world, with the simple sets from the television show, amped up to feel like a real street. As the camera moves around, we see the other side of the street, and down the block. Unlike the more brightly-lit stage set, this version feels a little dingier, though no-less-welcoming.
Though it is Big Bird’s story, there doesn’t really seem to be much that changes regarding him. By the end of the film, he’s still the same 6-year-old, 8-foot-tall bird we’ve known, though has gone on an adventure of his own, outside the normal confines of his nest.
When it comes to the characters introduced in this film, the Dodo family seems a little more low-tech when it comes to Muppets. Though full-bodied figures, their expressions are largely static, and most of the time, it’s hard to tell if even their beaks are moving.
Pretty much the one Muppet whom it seems plenty of craft was put into for her introduction, was Miss Finch, who uses a character-build very similar to that of Big Bird’s. As the film continues, Miss Finch seems to be made out to be the bad guy (bird?) in the film. Given her huffy attitude and narrowed eyes, she often wears a look of perturbedness. but when one gets right down to it, she’s simply acting on the thought that she’s doing the right thing. She doesn’t get a huge kickback for placing Big Bird in a bird family. If anything, her biggest character flaw, is that she is constantly in the mindset that Big Bird needs to be “with his own kind,” which are birds.
That becomes the overall theme of the film, when one sees that Big Bird has had friends of all shapes and sizes on Sesame Street. Even Oscar who isn’t the most vocal about friendship, surely cares for ‘the big yellow turkey.’
The emotions at time definitely seem genuine, and it shows what was often one of the key ingredients in many productions with the Muppets: you grew to care and believe in them! When Big Bird leaves Sesame Street, he definitely ‘feels’ like he’s sad to be leaving people behind who love him. Even in a song he sings near the end of the film, I’ve seen some people remark about how the song touched them emotionally.
Of all the characters, the only real bad guys we have, are The Sleaze Brothers, Sam (Dave Thomas) and Sid (Joe Flaherty). Most of what we see that makes them bad is how they conduct their circus. At one point, they refuse to let a boy down from the ferris wheel, unless he pays 10 cents. They also steal his apple for good measure, which then leads to an interesting story callback at the end.
Though in truth, it’s largely Sam who is the real bad guy. Sid is moreso the dopey brother who goes along with the plans. Even so, Sid’s grand schemes are within reason. He is moreso a toned-down ‘sleaze’ of a bad guy, but we still get down that he’s not someone we want to spend time with.
One moment that always stuck with me, occurs at the end when the Sleaze Brothers attempt to get away with Big Bird, and some of his friends give chase. The moment for me belongs to Gordon (played by Roscoe Orman), who tries to convince Big Bird to jump off of a moving vehicle. Showing how innocent his 6-year-old mind is, Big Bird refuses, claiming that what Gordon is proposing is dangerous.
The best part is when you see Gordon growing frustrated, and like an exasperated parent trying to find a way around the situation goes: “You have my permission-just this once!”
The road trip portion of the film feels like the place where the story really comes alive, as we get all sorts of little vignettes, both with Big Bird, and his friends.
As a kid who was big into cars, getting to see all the different vehicles being driven stuck in my head, not to mention in one scene, you see The Count driving his car down the road. Sure, the Sesame Street Muppets were fine walking down the street, but here, it was amazing to see they could even drive!
Big Bird does encounter a couple of kids on a farm, who allow him to stay with them for a bit. The little moment almost is about the most child-to-bird interaction we get in the film, and it leads to a nice happy-go-lucky song, before Big Bird has to run when Miss Finch spots him! One thing that I found rather endearing, and shows what a big heart Big Bird has, is before he rushes off into a nearby hayfield, he still takes a few seconds to give the kids a hug and bid them goodbye.
There’s quite a few musical numbers as Big Bird takes to the road, and some definitely have a way of sticking in your head. One of the more memorable ones is sung by country singer Waylon Jennings, who plays a turkey truck driver, who gives Big Bird a lift. Word was that after filming Follow That Bird, Jennings and Big Bird’s Muppeteer Caroll Spinney, became good friends.
Jennings is just one of several small cameos in the film. Much like The Muppet Movies, Follow That Bird included ‘very brief cameos’ by the likes of Chevy Chase, Sandra Bernhard, and John Candy.
Follow That Bird was the only feature-length film revolving around the Sesame Street Muppets, until 1999, when The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland came out. Given how young I was when the last Sesame Street film came out, it was a given that I was most likely not among the crowds that went to the newer film.
Bird definitely feels like a time-capsule film, and while not as hugely-loved as other films of the era, I still think it stands up pretty well after 30 years. The film also has some little jokes that the kids won’t catch, but it doesn’t ever get dirty. One joke that I’m sure the parents got a chuckle out of, was the city of ‘Ocean View, Illinois.’ For a land-locked state, that’s definitely a joke in itself. As well, director Ken Kwapis even gets to make a little homage to a scene from the film, North By Northwest.
I have wondered what some kids of this generation would think upon seeing the film. In the 3 decades since its release, Sesame Street has changed quite a bit. Elmo usurped Grover for ‘cutest monster’ in the 1990’s, and much of the show these days seems to rely moreso on characters in composited play-scapes.
Would they be as accepting of this story as I and many others were, back in 1985?