Fans of Sesame Street – both young and old will love Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird, a fun road movie released in 1985, that told the tale of Big Bird and his quest to get back home to Sesame Street, after being sent away to Midwest to live with a family of birds, after the meddling of a social worker. While often film spin-offs are tedious that reek with cynicism, Follow That Bird is a lovely little film that takes the much-loved characters: Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Grover, and takes them out of the familiar confines of the cozy street in New York and into the flat wilderness of Illinois.
As expected from a production of Sesame Workshop, the film handles topical issues that affect children, but does so with a subtle hand and delicate grace. Big Bird lives in Sesame Street with a menagerie of various animals as well as monsters and humans. The feeling among the ‘hood is that of love and companionship. Big Bird’s best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus is especially devoted. Despite all this caring and friendship, Big Bird sometimes feels left out and alienated because he’s the only bird on the street. Coincidentally, a panel of birds decide that it’s important that orphan birds are matched with bird families – and one case worker in particular, Miss Finch (a giant bird, like Big Bird), decides that Big Bird belongs with the Dodo family – a family of well-meaning, but extremely stupid birds who live in the strangely-named Ocean View, Illinois.
Quickly Big Bird tires of his silly family, and decides to get back home, and sets off on foot. His escape was announced on the news and Miss Finch sets off to find the missing Big Bird; all of his friends back on Sesame Street jump into their cars and plan to find him themselves. Unfortunately, at the same time, a pair of unscrupulous carnies (Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas) want to capture Big Bird and keep him as a side show attraction.
On his journey back home, Big Bird runs into friendly people who help get home – country singer, Waylon Jennings, in particular has a fun cameo as a truck driver who gives Bird a lift and serenades him with a nifty ditty. In fact, along with Jennings, there are other celebs that pop up: Sandra Bernhard plays a disgruntled diner waitress at the grimiest truck stop diner, Chevy Chase does his patented deadpan act as a particularly clueless news anchor, and John Candy shows up as a cop.
Aside from the starry celebs, Follow That Bird also has the human cast of characters that will be familiar to kid viewers: Bob (Bob McGrath), Gordon (Roscoe Orman), Linda (Linda Bove), Maria (Sonia Manzano), Luis (Emilio Delgado), Susan (Loretta Long), and Olivia (Alaina Reed) all appear in the film, along with the resident Sesame Street Muppets like Kermit, Snuffy, Count von Count, Telly, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch. The characters bring a sense of consistency to the film, which at the same times feels expanded – the bigger budget allows for various uncommon shots for Sesame Street, that include POV from the rooftops and an areal view of Sesame Street (on the television show, there is a certain flatness, almost as if the show was being performed on a stage – the use of movie filming gives a three-dimensional look to the show).
Follow That Bird imparts a very important message: it doesn’t matter what your family members look like – all that matters is if they love you. Miss Finch is intent to help Big Bird, and wants the best for him, but is caught up in ensuring that he’s with a bird family – obviously, a veiled lesson in condemning those against interracial adoption. And as expected the message of diversity in friendship and family is given without mawkishness, with a light hand. That is one of the charms of the program – the ability to educate without coming off as preachy or self-conscious. Follow That Bird shows that the crew behind the program can adapt their work to the big screen with aplomb.