Follow that Bird

Follow that BirdSynopsis: The First Sesame Street Movie Ever!

Follow that bird – Big Bird, of course – for an imaginative, magical, for-kids-of-all ages treat starring the cast of TV’s Sesame Street in their first movie. Jim Henson’s beloved characters Oscar, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster and more – plus other members of the Sesame Street family – join Big Bird in a big-hearted, cross-country adventure.

A meddling social worker sends poor Big Bird off to Ocean View, Illinois, for the comforts of family life with his “own kind,” the Dodos. But Big Bird is a disaster as a Dodo and, lonely and homesick, he soon sets off on foot for Sesame Street. Can his old friends find him before he runs “afowl” of trouble en route?

Be on the lookout for Big Bird – and big entertainment, featuring guest stars Chevy Chase, Sandra Bernhard, John Candy, Waylon Jennings and more. Follow your heart as Sesame Street Presents: Follow that Bird!

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Follow that Bird 8.0

eyelights: Big Bird. Oscar the Grouch. Maria. the humour.
eyesores: the designs and personalities of the new puppet characters.

“This news just in, concerning a 6-year-old runaway. The runaway is an eight-foot yellow bird who answers to the name Big Bird.”

‘Follow that Bird’ is a 1985 motion picture film based on the characters on ‘Sesame Street’. It follows the adventures of Big Bird as he leaves his friends to try living in an adoptive family, only to realize that his true home is with the Sesame Street gang. Hitting the road, he ends up being chased by the adoption agency and scam artists.

Of course, the people and characters of Sesame Street go out to find him as well. Amusingly, many have their own vehicles: The Count has a car the Munsters would appreciate (whose plate is 12345678910), Oscar has his Sloppy Jalopy (whose plate is SCRAM), Gordon, Olivia and Linda have a yellow Volks (which Cookie Monster eats away at),  and Bert and Ernie have a plane. Obviously, Super Grover doesn’t need a vehicle.

When it came out, I flatly dismissed it. I was a young rebellious teenager discovering ‘Dirty Harry’ and other more mature-themed entertainment. ‘Sesame Street’ was many years behind me – as was my soft side. The notion of a Big Bird movie made me puke and I swiftly made fun of it with my friends. It would be years until I actually saw it.

I wasn’t alone: ‘Follow that Bird’ was a flop at the time. It would take well over a decade before there would be another Sesame Street theatrical release.

By the mid-’90s, I was working at the local library and they had a vast collection of laserdiscs, including ‘Follow that Bird’. I don’t recall what possessed me to take this one out (I suspect it was merely because I was pretty much indiscriminately watching everything that they had), but I was mildly tickled by it – enough so that I later bought it.

Amazingly enough, it grew on me over the years. The more I watch ‘Follow that Bird’, the more I think that it’s actually a pretty delightful family film. And an intelligent one, at that – one that parents would enjoy as well. Make no mistake: it’s not nearly as clever or sophisticated as The Muppets are, but it has grown to be one of my favourite Muppet-related films.

Who would ever have imagined that? And yet there are many reasons for it:

  • Oscar the Grouch: Starting with a terrific intro by Oscar, singing the Grouch Anthem in front of the American flag (and later joined by other grouches), Oscar has an indelible presence. As one of my all-time favourite pop culture icons, I couldn’t be happier. He also has a large presence in the film, because he goes off (with Maria, Telly Monster and Homer Honker) in to find Big Bird in his Sloppy Jalopy.

There are so many superb moments involving Oscar, including a visit to the Don’t Drop Inn, a counterpoint to Friendly’s. Wicked fun, that scene is filled with grouches and features Sandra Bernhard as a waitress. The menu is brilliant, featuring such delicious fare as mashed potatoes with marshmallow sauce, creamed garlic soup with maraschino cherries and TOSSED Salad – which inevitably starts a salad fight.

  • Maria: I had forgotten how lovely Sonia Manzano was. I remember having a major crush on her when I was a kid. Some things never change. Any scene with Maria in it is sweeter for it.
  • Big Bird: Even as a kid, I thought that Big Bird was lame. But, this time around, I loved his innocence and open heart. He’s a really lovely character. And boy does he have great plumage! The design of Big Bird is stellar – it’s no wonder that he was such a hit (unlike the movie’s Dodos or Ms. Finch…). And Big Bird looks so cute with his teddy bear, Radar. Awwwww. Officially, he’s 6-years-old, so it’s normal that he’s naive like a child that age. But he’s also super sweet and endearing.
  • Its stars: Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty (of SCTV fame) have major roles as the Sleaze brothers, who are trying to capture Big Bird and make a fortune out of him in their circus. They’re enjoyable. But it’s the cameos that really bring it. Chevy Chase has this bit as a newscaster that is pretty droll, thanks to his dry delivery. Sandra Bernhard is actually funny, not irritating. John Candy (another SCTV alumni) has a an amusing bit as a patrol cop (who happens to keep a kid in his side buggy) and Paul Bartel pops up at the Don’t Drop Inn. They’re all in on the gag and making the most of the moment.
  • Its emotions: One of the key strengths of the picture is that it isn’t hyperbolic or artificial. Feelings of friendship, loneliness, sadness, …etc. all appear genuine, not fabricated for the screen. A perfect example of this is Big Bird’s goodbye: it was sad because so many people were clearly disappointed. And yet, it was also touching because it showed how valued each member of the community is on Sesame Street. At no point do we feel put on by it.
  • Its cleverness: It’s relatively well thought out; it doesn’t assume that children are idiots and anything goes – which is great for their parents, too. But it’s also laced with a number of winks at the audience, including the Warner Brothers logo, which has Big Bird tell us that this movie was brought to us “by the letters W and B”. Nice. And when Feathered Friends send Ms. Finch to handle Big Bird’s adoption and transition, she asks “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?”. Ha!
  • Its message: Feathered Friends tries to find a family for Big Bird, insisting that he should be with his own kind, assuming that this is best for him. What the film is trying to say, of course, is that that’s not necessarily the case, that you can find your home anywhere, and your family can be anyone you choose. This progressive theme is a brilliant touch. I love it.
  • It’s a musical that knows its limits: Aside from Oscar’s intro, it takes 30 minutes before the first song. Awesome. But the songs are actually not bad, either. The first one has many of the ‘Sesame Street’ cast taking turns singing and it worked really well. I bloody hate musicals, but this is more of a children’s sing-a-long. Which, truth be told, I thought was alright.

In fact, as a musical comedy road movie for kids, ‘Follow that Bird’ likely couldn’t be any better. It knows how to balance all of its characters, shifting back and forth between them at exactly the right ratio, it has enough gags to amuse its audience, just enough songs to reel the kiddies in, and plenty of heart – with tons of known-how and skill to support it all.

If I had any issue with it at all, it would be the character designs of the new characters, the Dodos and Ms. Finch. They look really horrible and don’t fit in with the slightly abstract quality of the other puppets on ‘Sesame Street’; they’re far too generic. In fact, they look out of place enough that it was a significant deterrent for me at first.

It didn’t help that they are grating: the Dodos are so dumb that it’s not funny at all. What I like about Henson’s creation is that they’re usually innocent, but not downright stupid. The Dodos are utter morons; they would frustrate 4-year-olds. And they’re clutzy on top of that. As for Ms. Finch, well, she’s uptight, close-minded and condescending.

Still, now that I’ve mined all the gold that is just waiting to be found in ‘Follow that Bird’, I don’t mind so much. This is a lovely film, and it’s one of the best of the whole Muppet filmography. Sure, it’s more for kids, but, as Jim Henson said, there’s a child in all of us. Personally, I think that this is one movie that’s worth tapping into the child inside for.

Date of viewing: February 26, 2014

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