Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer of '85: Follow That Bird

(The following was written for The House Next Door on June 15th, 2010)

One could almost see it as a celebration. By 1985, the original audience for the children's educational show Sesame Street were just beginning to graduate high school and move into adulthood, and the show was still as successful as ever. This success stemmed from its ability to encompass the average preschooler's life experience and compress it into a microcosm, with the creatures of their wild imaginations and supportive adults coexisting and teaching together. Also, Cookie Monster was pretty goofy.

Sesame Street was a safe, warm place for a child to be, but like real life, serious issues would crop up at random. The most famous of these incidents was the death of elderly storekeeper Mr. Hooper in 1983. As in real life, these issues could not simply be swept under the rug—they affected everyone. Death, serious injury, the loss of a home. In August of 1985, Sesame Street took a gamble and not only released their first theatrical film, but decided to make it on a more specific issue than they were used to, namely child protection services and biracial families. Cookie Monster was still pretty goofy, though.

After a fun prologue featuring Sesame Street's two biggest stars, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird (both performed by Caroll Spinney), Follow That Bird opens with a pullback shot over a noisy, disorganized board meeting consisting of nothing but Muppet birds. These are the Fine Feathered Friends, and their job is to "place stray birds with nice BIRD families." They pass around a folder with a profile and photos of a "sad, sad case that needs OUR urgent attention." It's Big Bird, and as one member rightfully points out, there's nothing in the file to indicate that Big Bird is unhappy with his life on Sesame Street. This causes an uproar among the board, and we are introduced to Miss Finch, the tallest and most imposing of the FFF.

Miss Finch: "We all know he can't be happy. He needs to be with his own KIND. With a bird family."

As with many Muppet-related projects, Sesame Street works on multiple levels that allow both young children and adults to enjoy it. Usually, that means sly hidden references that'll go over the average preschooler's head. While a kid may enjoy the original series' "Would You Like To Buy an O" because it's catchy and teaches them letters, adults can enjoy its parody of bootleg rolex salesmen.

Follow That Bird is a bit of a different animal, though. While kids will and have enjoyed the film as a sweet-and-occasionally-exciting road trip with all their favorite Sesame Street friends, parents are presented with far deeper themes to consider. For example, when Miss Finch confronts Big Bird alone about him not being around other birds, Susan (Loretta Long) and Maria (Sonia Manzano) eavesdrop from behind the door, not interjecting, not interacting. It's easy to forget that this eight-foot bird is just a child, no older then the children who watched the show on a daily basis. Who at that age can grasp ideas like "his own kind" or being put in a new family?

Big Bird: "I'm not really leaving, I'm just going away."

The adults of Sesame Street seem to have forgotten this when they let Big Bird go without much more then a group "We'll miss you." Big Bird is placed in the care of the Dodos, who may be birds, but are also totally square, living in a birdhouse version of a 1950s Pleasantville and wearing boring, muted colors, and they are total morons, unable to recognize Big Bird as he gets off his plane.

In my favorite moment of the film, Maria reads a letter from Big Bird to the rest of the people on Sesame Street, describing his life with the Dodos. The letter is far more positive then reality, as we cut to shots of the Dodos' pathetic attempts at work and play, and they are so caught in their own world that at no point do they even seem to acknowledge Big Bird's existence. At the end of the letter, things become very clear for everyone on Sesame Street.

Maria: "So that's my new home. I should be happy here… What's wrong with me?"

It's Big Bird blaming himself in the way that a child may blame himself for his parents' divorce that seems to trigger the people of Sesame Street, makes them realize that they should have done something, said SOMETHING, and when Big Bird runs away from the Dodos and starts trekking towards Sesame Street on foot, everyone springs into action and tries to make things right.

This is when the film turns into a minor road trip movie, and while it's fun and offers some well-shot farmland scenery, it barely touches the themes already established. Miss Finch is traded in for stock kid film villains the Sleaze Brothers (SCTV's Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty), who want to capture Big Bird to be the main attraction for their rundown carnival. Cookie Monster eats a car, Oscar the Grouch and Maria go to a Grouch diner and get into a food fight, Bert and Ernie get a biplane and reenact North by Northwest, and there are several musical numbers before the rest of Sesame Street finally retrieve Big Bird.

With Big Bird safe, Miss Finch makes her return, and we once again face the question of whether or not Big Bird would be better off with "his own kind."

Maria: "He doesn't need another family. He has one right here, and we all love him.

Miss Finch: "But he's a bird. He'd be happier with his own kind."

Maria: "Well, we're all happy here on Sesame Street, and we've got all kinds. We've got people and cows and we've got Bert and Ernie and there's dogs and birds. We've got monsters and kids and there's Honkers. Why, we even got Grouches!"

Miss Finch can't deny this, and Big Bird is allowed to stay. Sesame Street earned Big Bird back, and the status quo is restored. Everyone cheers. We can go back to letters and numbers as the Count counts the credits. It had been sixteen years, and Sesame Street was still here. One could almost see it as a celebration.

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