Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous. The first Sesame Street movie, Follow That Bird chases Big Bird across the country.
Follow That Bird (1985) is the puppet master Jim Henson’s only feature film adaptation of Sesame Street, the show that has taught and influenced just about every one of us. The story follows our beloved Big Bird (Caroll Spinney) on a feathered journey of discovery and belonging.
The television program was originally developed in 1966 by Henson incorporating his Muppet creation tied in with animation, short films and culturally educational content. Spinney who is puppeteer for both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch likens the Muppets as being The Beatles of the puppet world. The Bird was initially going to be goofy and silly when first conceived and definitely still retains elements of these characteristics. In building the personality of Oscar, Caroll got his inspiration for the voice during a cab ride where the driver spoke with a cigar hanging out from the side of his mouth.
The first scene in the movie takes us to the boardroom of The Feathered Friends who have the task of placing homeless birds with a good flock. Big Bird is identified as being a 6 year old bird living on his own with no other birds around. Ironically as he is being farewelled from Sesame Street there is a small sparrow type Muppet in the crowd. The chase to follow and find that bird begins when Big Dodo (Bird) runs away from his new nest. Big Bird is pursued by The Feathered Friends’ Miss Finch, hunted by a pair of Sleaze Brothers Funfair owners, while being searched for by his rescuer Sesame Street family. Bird’s own destination is Toadstool, “The Mushroom City”.
The movie opens with the Grouch Anthem, which is one where you stay seated. Oscar is strategically placed in bottom right of an American flag singing the anthem with a chorus of Grouches, the message being to “just stand up and complain!”. Oscar joins the search in his car the Sloppy Jalopy, the side of which is spray-painted “Big Bird or Bust!”. Oscar and travel companions Maria, Telly and Honker stop for dinner at Don’t Drop Inn and Bad Eats, a place with real Grouch dining service, and such delicacies as meatloaf with marshmallow sauce and special roast beef with butterscotch and anchovies.
Devoted best friend Mr. Snuffleupagus dutifully watches over Bird’s nest and also appears to Big Bird as a vision in his hour of need. The Count joins the search in the Countmobile (numberplate 12345678910) and takes much joy in counting street posts and end credits. Super Grover flies to the rescue. The infamous pair Bert and Ernie take to the sky in a Red Barron type plane and enjoy the trip while cracking jokes, laughing, arguing, singing and flying upside down. Cookie Monster spends the expedition eating his way through the yellow Volkswagen and can’t help himself when Big Bird’s bird napper is sleeping with a box of cookies. This flick was obviously before “M” was for moderation. Interestingly, Elmo can be seen as an extra in the final welcome home scene, an early appearance before the creation of the character with enormous fame.
Big Bird has a number of well crafted musical numbers. Trio “One Little Star” is performed by Olivia, Bird and Snuffy. “Easy Goin’ Day” is a fun duet with rescue girl (Tawny Richard) a confident and young talent. A very moving performance is given by a blue Big Bird singing “I’m So Blue”.
Sesame Street is renowned for its no-holds-barred guest appearances and this film is no exception. Chevy Chase comes on a TV screen as Newscaster and fellow Muppet Kermit the Frog as Reporter Kermit reporting on the runaway bird. Kermit had regular stints on Sesame Street over the years as TV News reporter for the Sesame Street News Flash. Sandra Bernhard also turns up as the perfect Grouch Waitress. John Candy as State Trooper catches the brother bird-nappers and apple thieves.