I’m fairly certain that the first movie I saw in theaters was 1985’s Follow That Bird. If it wasn’t that, it was Santa Claus: The Movie, Dudley Moore’s Christmas disaster that came out a few months later. My grandpa Dean used to take me to whatever movie I wanted to see every so often, and Follow That Bird seems like something we would have gone to, especially given my 4-year-old penchant for all things Sesame Street.
Follow That Bird gave Sesame loyalists—of which there were many—a chance to see all their daytime TV friends out of their nests and garbage cans, walking around and navigating through cornfields and carnivals. It was to be a big production and would, given the show’s popularity, undoubtedly yield a big payoff. At least, that was probably the idea. Despite an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, Follow That Bird was a box office flop, making only $2.4 million its opening weekend and quickly petering out in theaters.
Regardless, Follow That Bird stands as a pantheon of cinema in my mind, a big-screen adaptation of the small screen world I knew so well. Prior to my recent re-watching, I remembered quite a few parts fondly, like the details of the Count’s fun roadster and some of the celebrity cameos, including brief appearances from John Candy and Chevy Chase.
What I didn’t remember until the re-watch was just how achingly sad Follow That Bird is. Detailing Big Bird’s quest to find his bird self, subsequent realization that he already had a family, and attempt to return to Sesame Street, Follow That Bird is a story of self, of loss, and of the dumb adventures an 8-foot-tall, 6-year-old bird can get into without the help of friendly adults. While parts of Follow That Bird are fun and whimsical—Bert and Ernie fly upside down in an airplane! Oscar drags Maria to a very grouchy diner for hilariously tossed salads!—other parts are just crushing, even to 33-year-old me.
Take, for instance, the scene where Big Bird has been captured by the Sleaze Brothers, dyed blue, and forced to perform as The Bluebird Of Happiness in a rinky-dink sideshow. It’s undoubtedly a scene that’s meant to break hearts, what with Bird’s eventual single blue tear, but every aspect of it is just so damn bleak. The audience of confused 4-year-olds clutching uneaten cotton candy? The way the patchwork curtain is slowly drawn back to reveal the cage inside? The wiggly spotlight and tinkling piano? I mean, seriously, that shit will crush even the most coldhearted viewer.
Other parts of Follow That Bird aren’t quite as ham-fisted, but still make an emotional impact. “One Little Star,” the song Bird sings as he longs for home and Snuffleupagus, is a heartfelt wallop, as is the scene where Maria, Telly, and other Sesame Street residents try to talk Bird out of leaving. They tell Bird that just because he’s a bird, it doesn’t mean he has to live with and be friends with only other birds. They love him, but because he honestly says he’d like to give living with other birds a try, they’re reluctantly willing to let him go.
Like so much Sesame Street produces, Follow That Bird is about finding oneself and learning to revel in difference. If there’s an overriding metaphor in Follow That Bird, it’s probably one about race—most birds think that birds should only associate with birds, and so on—but the message isn’t really so clear-cut that it ever feels forced. Instead, the brains behind Sesame Street and Follow That Bird found a way to get a message of unity and diversity across without really hammering it home. Miss Finch, the harebrained and persistent Feathered Friends’ Board Of Birds agent who places Big Bird with the idiot Dodo family and tries to track him down after he flees, really does believe she’s doing the best thing until Big Bird and all his Sesame Street friends prove otherwise. Like so many of Sesame Street’s lessons, this is one she and Big Bird have to learn in practice before they learn it in theory. We make mistakes so that we can know what’s right in the future.
Follow That Bird isn’t really the most memorable movie in terms of music or storyline—there’s a reason you don’t remember any of the songs from the movie like you do the ones from Sesame Street, the show—but it contains moments, both comical and tragic, that are absolutely indelible. It still works 29 years later, and, God willing, should still play for kids and adults alike for years to come.