Follow That Bird (1985)
Written by Judy Freudberg & Tony Geiss
Directed by Ken Kwapis
The late 1970s/early-mid 1980s was the era of the Muppets and Jim Henson. The world-famous puppeteer worked to show the audience what his creations could do and expand the public consciousness about puppetry. He showed us a comedic variety program with The Muppet Show, a road trip picture with The Muppet Movie, action & adventure in The Great Muppet Caper, and a Broadway-style musical with the Muppets Take Manhattan. Henson created work aimed at older audiences with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. In the middle of all of this, Henson’s company decided to bring their phenomenally successful public television series Sesame Street to the big screen with Follow That Bird.
Big Bird is approached by Ms. Finch, a representative of a concerned bird society who wants the sizeable yellow avian taken from Sesame Street and placed with a family of dodos. Big Bird reluctantly goes with her but quickly learns how unsuited he is for life with the dodos and runs away. This gets media attention, and residents of Sesame Street set out to find Bird and rescue him. Meanwhile, a pair of carnival owners see the lost bird as a great boon to their business and also begin a search with the agenda of capturing Big and making people pay tickets to see him.
Follow That Bird isn’t a masterpiece of cinema, and it isn’t even one of the best Muppet films, but it is a decently funny picture that doesn’t talk down to the intended audience of little kids. In fact, I would argue it tackles some heavier themes then you might expect if you have a cursory understanding of Sesame Street. Big Bird is told he doesn’t belong in the urban diversity of New York City but should be in the homogenous dullness of middle America suburbia. The Dodo family is devoid of imagination and stuck in a cycle of habits that are unproductive and refuse to see beyond them.
There are moments of great pathos and humor throughout the picture, a hallmark of all Henson’s productions. At one point, painted blue and stuck in a cage, Big Bird croons a melancholy song to an audience of children at the carnival, and it is a genuinely moving moment, reminding of us that precious innocence that makes people of all ages love the character. Then you have the Grouch diner sequence where Sandra Bernhard plays a rotten waitress flinging fetid food to the customers.
Follow That Bird manages to tell a story with strong emotional conflict without resorting to irredeemable villains. Ms. Finch, who easily could have been framed as a Big Bird’s nemesis, is a person thinking she is doing the right thing by demanding an orphaned bird be with his “own kind.” The message of Sesame Street has always been one about the beauty that exists within diversity, featuring one big cobbled-together family of urban neighbors. The script was penned by one long time Sesame Street writer and another more known for work in larger productions. Tony Geiss would go on to help write The Land Before Time and An American Tail, and you see threads of those later movies percolating here.