Control Nathan Rabin: Follow That Bird (1985)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we give the 47 Smash Mouth-level rock stars who contribute to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast Patreon page the power to choose between which of two dodgy-looking motion pictures Clint and I must watch, then write about for the column.
That’s usually how things go. This entry worked a little differently. When I thought that The Happytime Murders would be the Scalding Hot Take Clint and I discussed for the podcast, I teamed it with the battling twosome of Furry Vengeance, the Brendan Fraser-fights CGI-animals stinkeroo from a few years back I desperately want to be professionally obligated to watch on account of it looking so terrible, and the 1985 Sesame Street movie Follow That Bird.
Then it turned out the timing did not work out for me and Clint to both see The Happytime Murders in time to talk about it for the podcast so we slotted in another movie and I temporarily shelved this particular Control Nathan and Clint, since we wouldn’t end up talking about it in an episode and I did not want to further burden Clint with having to see it.
I returned to Follow That Bird because, as regular readers of this column can all too wearily attest, I am unhealthily obsessed with the venerable children’s program Sesame Street in a way that can only partially be explained by my being the father of two baby boys.
Maybe that’s why I’ve been reluctant to see one of only two full-fledged motion pictures produced by the good people and puppets over at Sesame Street: I’m too close to it. I don’t have the necessary detachment to see Follow That Bird as just another movie, and a children’s one at that.
Having just watched Follow That Bird, I can understand why I’ve been reluctant to cover it. Unlike The Muppet Movie, which it all too closely resembles, Follow That Bird is not a widely acclaimed touchstone of multiple generation’s childhoods that more than does justice to its revered stars while also working splendidly on its own terms as a rollicking road comedy and meta deconstruction of show business at once loving and biting.
Man, how fucking great is The Muppet Movie? It’s really fucking great. It doesn’t seem fair to compare Follow That Bird to such a stone cold classic but it’s also impossible not to. Both debut vehicles take the form of celebrity cameo-filled road movies that take their puppety oddballs out of their homes and original context and sets them on episodic musical adventures across this formerly great land.
But where The Muppet Movie achieved its Herculean ambitions with an effortlessness born of unimaginable hours of hard work by devoted artisans working at the apex of their ability, Follow That Bird feels clunky and tonally incoherent, an excessively dark kid’s film that takes some familiar, feathered faces in some perversely dark directions.
When they were spitballing ideas for the first Sesame Street movie in the television institution’s then-nearly-three-decades long history someone must have suggested, “Heavy handed metaphor for segregation, integration and assimilation that touches morbidly on Big Bird being an orphan without really clarifying anything” followed by “beloved icon of children’s entertainment is abducted by abusive, criminal carnies and forced to perform sad songs in a ghoulish, exploitative carnival.” Rather than being shouted down, or implored to contribute non-joke ideas, they apparently decided to go with both of those bad, bad, incongruous ideas in tandem.
Yes, Follow That Bird opens by really hammering home that Big Bird does not have a mother and father to care for him. Why not? I don’t know. My mother abandoned me because she was narcissistic and mentally ill and ill-prepared to handle the responsibilities of parenthood, although that did not keep her from having five children. Is it possible that Big Bird’s mother and dad peaced out for similar reasons? Or was it more of a murder-suicide situation with a traumatized Baby Big Bird looking on from his crib? That would be sad for many reasons, one of them being that Baby Big Bird is ridiculously adorable, and consequently more important than less-cute creatures.
I don’t know but in Follow That Bird a bunch of asshole puppet bird segregationists, led by a bird puppet voiced by Sally Kellerman, decide that since Big Bird lives on Sesame Street among a diverse, multi-cultural group of humans, grouches, monsters, animals and more he must be miserable and pine desperately to be surrounded and cared for by his fellow birds instead of engaging in unacceptable species-mixing.
I’m not saying that Follow That Bird is heavy handed in its metaphors but I wouldn’t be surprised if early drafts of the script featured a new character named George Wallace Bird shouting, “Bird Segregation Now! Bird Segregation Tomorrow! Bird Segregation Forever!” or the birds belonging to an organization called the Cuckoo Clucks Klan dedicated to protecting the purity of bird blood.
In Follow That Bird, these terrible birds convince happy, innocent, easily manipulated Big Bird that he cannot be happy living amongst non-bird infidels of non-pure blood and must fulfill their vaguely Fascist vision of a homogenous social order where everyone sticks to their “own kind” by moving away from his happy, happy home in a nest on Sesame Street and into a house in one of those shit towns in rural Illinois with a family of four named the Dodos.
The Dodos, as you can probably guess from their names, are fucking morons. Seriously, they’re the fucking worst, despite the father being voiced by Eddie Deezen. Deezen’s sonorous voice is one of my favorite sounds in the world, easily beating my newborn baby’s contented coo. Yet not even Deezen and Laraine Newman as the voice of the Mama Dodo can do anything to liven up this stale dumb act. Seriously, the Dodos are like The Stupids, only stupider.
The Dodos try to undermine Big Bird’s identity and sense of self by re-dubbing him “Big Dodo.” They’re so oblivious and terrible that even a figure as pleasant as Big Bird is ultimately moved to flee in horror and embark on a long, quixotic quest to return to his true home at Sesame Street where he can live amongst other species and races and creeds, and not have his life choices dictated by the bigotry and xenophobia of his fellow birds.
It must be a very, very slow news cycle (nothing apparently happened in our country in the mid 1980s) because Big Bird running away from home becomes national news and the Sesame Street gang sets out to find Big Bird and bring him home before the road takes him.
At one point Big Bird fantasizes that he sees his old buddy Mr. Snuffleupagus and tries to hug him but can’t because, being a figure of fantasy, this version of Snuffy lacks a corporeal form. Snuffy tells Bird that he’ll hug him when he gets home but Bird corrects him, “if” he gets home.
Big Bird knows all too well just how perilous the highways and byways of our great nation can be. He knows that all it takes is the wrong exchange with the wrong trucker (a trucker who no doubt agrees with the bird community about the importance of everyone sticking with their own kind for the sake of preserving social order) and Big Bird could easily end up like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda at the end of Easy Rider, his enormous, bullet-riddled corpse lying by the side of the road, a powerful reminder of the brutality and violence lurking behind what is euphemistically known as “The American Dream.”
Big Bird is right to be worried. It isn’t long until he’s kidnapped and forced into a form of side show slavery by the Sleaze Brothers, a repellent pair of abusive, dim-witted carnies played by SCTV’s Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas. Now I love Sesame Street, obviously. I love Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas. I love the idea of Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas playing 1930s-style carny grifters, the kind of galoots who are overjoyed when Big Bird helps catapult their shady business from a literal nickel and dime operation to one where they routinely collect paper dollars, and sometimes even five dollar bills.
But I do not love Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas as small-time side show proprietors (one of their top attractions is an invisible ape) who abuse a terrified and alone Big Bird by dyeing his beautiful yellow feathers a haunting shade of blue and forcing him to perform an achingly sad ballad as what I can only assume is the ironically named “Bluebird of Happiness.”
How melancholy and despairing is the “Bluebird of Happiness” scene? I’m guessing David Lynch saw it and felt like he needed to top it in weirdness and sadness, and hence the “In Dreams” sequence in Blue Velvet was born.
The Sesame Street gang eventually manages to free Big Bird from his prison and we all learn that segregation is wrong and that family is where you find it, not a matter of only living with people who look and act like you, and share your beliefs.
Follow That Bird is a weird fucking movie whose tone varies wildly from scene to scene. When Chevy Chase is onscreen as a newscaster doing silly wordplay the movie very briefly becomes a “Weekend Update” segment from 1975. When Flaherty and Thomas are doing shtick, it morphs into SCTV and when Big Bird and others are singing sappy, forgettable ballads (this desperately could have used The Muppet Movie’s Paul Williams) , it’s mawkish and sentimental.
In trying to entertain kids and adults, the filmmakers ended up with something strangely unpalatable, if intermittently charming and funny and sweet in that inimitable Sesame Street way. I was bothered that the movie is darker than Elmo in Grouchland, and that took place largely in Grouchland. That’s a place where everyone goes out of their way to be as mean, obnoxious and loud as humanly possible solely for spite and attention. In our world, that place is known as “the internet.”
Follow That Bird is not an embarrassment or an abomination but I can understand why it was not followed by a series of hit sequels, as The Muppet Movie was. In one of their most inspired moments Flaherty and Thomas propose forcing Big Bird to make money for them as the world’s largest avian breakdancer and while I think it’s probably best that that film was never made I would pay good money to see a street-dancing-themed follow-up where we’re invited to follow that bird, sure, but also his devastating moves and surprising mastery of all of the various elements of Hip Hop, from graffiti to MCing to breakdancing. Now that is a Big Bird movie that could have made some big bucks, assuming it was released in the two month window before breakdancing became yesterday’s news.
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