My Misspent Youth In Films...
Follow That Bird
Directed by: Ken Kwapis
Starring: Caroll Spinney, Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Released: August 2, 1985
What I Thought Then
It's a Sesame Street movie! Of course I freaking loved it! I think we owned the soundtrack on vinyl, but it wasn't one that Dad made a tape of, so we didn't listen to it.
What I Think Now
Before Sesame Street was overrun by Elmo, Big Bird was the mascot character, and he has a lot more depth to him than Elmo. Elmo is unbridled joy. Big Bird was friendly and generally optimistic, but every now and then he would have to reckon with sadness and anxiety. So what's his foray onto the big screen like?
Deep, beleaguered sigh.
It's not very good. I guess we'll start with the positives, though. It wasn't shot on Sesame Street sets, but rather on an actual street in Toronto, which allows for some wider shots and gives the location of Sesame Street a bit more verisimilitude, weirdly by making it feel smaller. Bert and Ernie's apartment looks like a cramped little apartment. Muppets are hanging out upper floor windows. The movie opens with Oscar The Grouch riffing on Patton, which is pretty amusing. The characters are all well-established, so their rapport feels genuine. Bert and Ernie feel like Bert and Ernie. Big Bird and Snuffy's affection for each other is very compelling. That stuff all works.
Very little else does. The story is a mess. A society that puts birds with new families has taken up Big Bird's case--not because he asked or is unhappy, but because "birds belong with their own kind". Big Bird agrees to be adopted by a family of dodos, and he's quite unhappy there, so he runs away. There's no appeal made, and very little attempt to adjust to his new life. And the movie is unambiguous that the Dodos are a terrible family--not because they're mean or neglectful, but because they're stupid. So he runs away from home. That appears to be the moral of this film: if you're unhappy, run away to Sesame Street. His story makes the news, so the gang from Sesame Street split up to try to find him. They all go in different directions with the idea that they'll converge on the town of Toadstool, because that's where he's going to end up, for some reason that's never clearly explained. Oh, and Miss Finch, who placed Big Bird with the Dodos, is determined to find him first and take him back to his new home. And that's the basic plot.
Except it isn't, because additionally, there are two more villains also pursuing Big Bird, the Sleaze brothers, who want to kidnap him to be an attraction for their fun fair. And in case this is too subtle for you, when we're introduced to the Sleaze brothers, an F falls off their sign, making it read Sleaze Brothers Unfair. There's no reason for them to be here. Their subplot doesn't make sense, they don't add anything to the story, and they aren't entertaining to watch. It's just one more thing for Big Bird to be running away from. Ultimately, they catch him, paint him blue, and make him sing the world's saddest song. It's super depressing.
The music is largely forgettable--even with Waylon Jennings showing up. There are a few decent jokes. Oscar takes Maria to a grouch restaurant, and that's pretty amusing, even if it does nothing to advance the story. Bert and Ernie fly a plane. They even spot Big Bird and try to land near him, referencing the iconic shot of Cary Grant running away from a plane in North By Northwest. As with Patton, it's an odd choice of satirical reference. I get that kids movies have jokes for the adults, but these still feel like unusual picks. The movie ends with an honest-to-bob stunt of Big Bird jumping from one moving car to another. It has absolutely zero tension, though.
Fortunately, the movie ends on a nice note between Big Bird and Snuffy. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the film, even though they spend most of the story separated. That said, I have a soft spot for Snuffy. My favorite Sesame Street characters are the ones who are slightly sad.
Not really. Put on the Bert & Ernie Sing-A-Long album instead.