“But I don’t want to hunt worms. I want Snuffy to come and visit. And if he can’t come and visit, I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to go home!”
If you asked a million Muppets fans why they love The Muppets, you would likely get a million different answers, but most of those reasons would probably be rooted in the caring world created by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, a world of family and friendship, of acceptance and education. And while Muppet flicks like The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper embody all those traits (and are much more likely to be the feature titles viewers think of when they think “Muppet movie”), my favorite Muppet flick that has always best exemplified all those traits is the very first Sesame Street film – Follow That Bird.
As that extremely telling title might let on, Follow That Bird centers on Sesame Street favorite, Big Bird (played here by Caroll Spinney, who originated Big Bird back in 1969). While both the human and the Muppet residents of Sesame Street have always lived together in a state of peace, understanding, and friendship, there’s at least one lady who doesn’t quite get how that all works – Sally Kellerman as her own Muppet, Miss Finch. A bird herself, Miss Finch catches word of Big Bird and his solitary bird existence on Sesame Street and makes it her mission to send the six-year-old (trivia!) big yellow bird away to a new home, with a new family made up of birds, the Dodos.
Big Bird is taken away from his happy home on Sesame Street because there are no other birds around him to raise him. It’s not that Big Bird is a Muppet among people, it’s that he’s a bird among people, and the powers that be are much more concerned with the differences between birds and people than how happy Big Bird is with those people. And while Miss Finch may have her heart in the right place (but probably not, because wowee, do I hate Miss Finch), that doesn’t change the fact that the Dodos are a terrible fit for Big Bird, mainly because they are total idiots (who, pray tell, names their children after the Osmonds?). Even though they are “the same kind” as Big Bird, they’re nothing like him; Big Bird’s people, Big Bird’s family are the people and Muppets on Sesame Street. And as Big Bird starts to realize what a terrible mistake moving in with the Dodos is, his family back on Sesame Street (most especially his best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus, played by Martin P. Robinson, who refuses to leave the bird’s nest) are figuring out the very same thing.
And so, the Muppets do what they do best – they go on a road trip (though they don’t really travel by map this time around). Big Bird sets out on foot (um, claw?) to get back to Sesame Street (while making all sorts of new friends, along with a few terrible enemies), not knowing that all of his friends and family are also on their way to him – including Super Grover using his own wind power, Bert and Ernie flying in their own plane, and both Count and Oscar the Grouch driving their very different vehicles. Check out the entire cast singing “Ain’t No Road Too Long” below (with Waylon Jennings as a kind-hearted turkey truck driver) below for one of the film’s best traveling sequences.
The film turns into both a road trip comedy and a heart-twisting missed-connection dramedy, with Big Bird and his friends always just missing each other, until Big Bird is literally “birdnapped” and forced to work in the Sleaze Brothers’ circus. As fun and frisky as it all is, Follow That Bird can also be very sad and very upsetting, with only one big, raucous, happy ending making some of the tougher stuff worthwhile (spoiler alert – it’s worthwhile). As a child, it made me cry every single time, and as an adult, it still chokes me up.
Like any good Muppet flick, the film is packed with celebrity cameos (John Candy, Jennings, Chevy Chase) and a number of nods to other, non-Muppet productions (including a truly inspired take on North by Northwest). Kermit the Frog even shows up in his reporter garb, and the entirety of Sesame Street turns out (also including Grover and Cookie Monster). Henson performs both Kermit and Ernie, with Oz joining in for Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover. It’s classic Muppets, through and through.
But if you don’t remember all that much about Follow That Bird, you will, almost assuredly remember one thing – a caged Big Bird, a Big Bird so depressed and so sad that he has literally turned blue. The song? “I’m So Blue.” If the sight of a caged Big Bird singing his beak off doesn’t make you cry, you have no heart, that’s just the way it is (fine, you’re allowed to just tear up a bit, if that’s your thing). And when a now-yellow Big Bird finally gets back to his home on Sesame Street, only to find his best friend guarding his nest as previously requested, well, no one could possibly feel blue then.
For more from our week-long celebration of Muppets, check out our Muppet Guide homepage.