Follow That Bird: Did Sesame Street Get too Intense With This Movie?

James Logie

Follow That Bird was a live-action musical/road-comedy film produced by Warner Bros and The Jim Henson Company.

Released in 1985, it's the story of Big Bird having to leave Sesame Street and eventually make his way home.

Despite the popularity of Sesame Street, Follow That Bird ended up being a lackluster hit.

It may have been that the tone of the movie was too intense for kids, or that the whole Sesame Street world just doesn’t translate to the big screen.

In either case, Follow That Bird is an interesting story of a kids' movie that probably should have been more successful than it was.

The Plot of Follow That Bird

This movie is a standard Jim Henson road trip movie. It worked really well for the Muppet Movie but didn’t have the same success with the Sesame Street characters.

The Feathered Friend’s Board of Birds has tracked down Big Bird and wants to place him with his own kind. Miss Finch from the board travels to New York to visit Sesame Street and brings him to the Dodo family that lives in Illinois.

The Dodos, and their kids, don’t see eye-to-eye with Big Bird and he eventually leaves. Big Bird is now on the loose and this story has hit the national news.

Everyone on Sesame Street sees this story and springs into action to help their giant friend.

On his journeys, Big Bird meets John Candy (and some other SCTV alumni), hitches a ride with Waylon Jennings, and stays with two kids on their farm.

While Big Bird is on the run, he’s not only being tracked by Miss Finch; but the Sleaze Brothers.

The Sleaze Brothers kidnap Big Bird and force him into performing in a carnival. The Sesame Street gang finds Bird at the carnival but the Sleaze Brothers make a break for it.

Big Bird is eventually rescued, brought back to Seasame Street, and realized this is his one true home

How Was This Movie Put Together?

The movie started in 1984 and they used the Toronto International Film Studios to completely recreate the Sesame Street set.

They created a much bigger and roomier set. This would not only allow for more muppets and actors but give a larger scope that would hopefully translate well onto the big screen.

The new street now included a fire station, music store, autobody shop, bakery, grocery store, and book store.

If you thought this movie had a different look than what you were used to seeing on TV; you’re right.

The idea was to give the movie a richer and more film-like quality to separate it from the lower quality TV show.

Producing the film was a relative newcomer named Ken Kwapis. You may not know that name, but you know another one of his big projects: The Office.

Kwapis had just got out of film school in 1983 but after meeting with Jim Henson, was offered the job on the spot.

Fun Fact: When Bert and Ernie are flying in the plane, Jim Henson and Frank Oz were actually filming this in a biplane that was upside down.

Why This Movie Was a Little too Intense

This is the tough thing they faced when filming the movie. Most of these characters have not been fully developed on Sesame Street.

They appear on screen for just a few minutes at a time and are there to serve a larger purpose such as teaching lessons (math, spelling, colors, etc). They have never been fully fleshed out and the movie would not only do that but go pretty deep while doing so.

Just the concept of ripping Big Bird away from Sesame Street was potentially jarring for younger viewers. From there, Big Bird takes on a Joseph Campbell/Hero’s Journey quest that has been used in countless movies most notably with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.

They had the difficult task of exploring these emotional plot points while still trying to keep things fun and whimsical.

The movie is still a musical but there aren’t any notable stand-out songs like there have been with the Muppet movies.

Whereas the Muppet movies had been about wacky adventures and trying to make it in show business, Big Bird is forced to face emotional decisions and come to grips with himself.

Some believed they went a bit too far with the emotional aspect of the film, especially when Big Bird is captured, turned blue, and forced to sing at the carnival.

Big Bird is essentially a 6-year-old kid and his reactions and viewpoint are easily corrupted.

Follow That Bird, of course, has a happy ending, but it goes through some pretty deep stuff to get there.

Are There Deeper Themes in This Movie?

It’s kind of hard to ignore it, but themes of segregation seem to be an underlying message in Follow That Bird. To start, there’s the issue that birds are thought to only be with other birds.

To most birds, this seems to be such an issue that they end up forming a board focused on the best interest of keeping birds together.

Miss Finch plays the role of this “evil” manifestation of bird relations. She also is completely delusional and seems to think she is doing the right thing.

She represents small-minded people who have trouble looking beyond their own misguided ideals.

Ultimately, the movie focuses on themes of unity and the inclusion of all people--something Seasame Street has been doing since day one.

Both the show and the movie celebrate the differences between people and that’s one of the take-home messages in Follow That Bird.

The Response to Follow That Bird

Critically, the movie was received pretty well. Today, it still has a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Even with the positive response from critics--and the fact it was a Sesame Street movie--it got pretty crushed at the box office.

The first issue is that there was a lot of competition out at the time. The only other thing was many parents dreaded the idea of having to take young children all the way to the movies when they could just stay home and watch Sesame Street on TV.

Follow That Bird opened on August 2, 1985. It opened the same weekend as Weird Science and Fright Night. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Back to the Future, and The Black Cauldron were still going strong.

These weren't necessarily for kids, but many families would see them. The other issue is that there just weren't that many screens available to show Follow That Bird.

E.T., Gremlins, and Ghostbusters had also be re-released and that took up more screen time. Either way, Follow That Bird made only $2.4 million its opening weekend and just under $14 million for its entire run.

This was seen as a huge disappointment and actually had a financial effect on the Children’s Television Workshop.

The Legacy & Finding a New Audience

Follow That Bird would find a bigger audience on home video. Home video was still relatively new at the time and the concept of owning a movie that you could watch over and over was just starting to become commonplace.

The movie was released on VHS and LaserDisc in 1986. Kids could now embrace the movie and there are stories of some kids physically wearing out copies of the tape.

Follow That Bird is an interesting look at something that just didn’t hit right. If it had come out a few years later--or earlier--it may have had a better response.

Ultimately, it got the right response, but not until it was discovered on home video.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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