Follow That Bird was the full Sesame Street cast’s first big-screen outing, and they more than brought it. The plot: A meddling social worker decides Big Bird should be with his “own kind,” and places him in a wholesome suburban Midwestern bird home. The family, the aptly named Dodos (the kids are named Donny and Marie!) are stupid, smug, and closed-minded. When they dare suggest Big Bird should get a new best friend because Birds and Snuffleupaguses don’t go together, he rightly freaks out and decides to walk back to Sesame Street.
The Muppets and their human friends hit the highways looking for him, and Big Bird winds his way back to his urban paradise. Sandra Bernhard plays a waitress. Waylon Jennings is a turkey farmer. The Grouch is at his vile best. The result is one of the best road movies ever made, and a perfect antidote for any city kid who starts to dream about freshly mown lawns, kiddie pools, and two car garages. Believe us, kid, the film seems to be saying, it ain’t worth it.
Warner is re-releasing the film this week to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, which gave us an excuse to chat with the film’s director, Ken Kwapis. Kwapis was fresh out of film school when he got the call from Jim Henson. He fell in love with the Muppets on sight and gave the movie his cinematic all, using as inspiration North By Northwest, Modern Times, and even Easy Rider to make what is arguably the best muppet movie of all time.
Babble spoke with Kwapis about cynical studio execs, the ascent of Elmo, and who Big Bird would transform into when he got tired. – Ada Calhoun
We are so excited about Follow That Bird coming out again. My two-year-old son is obsessed with it. What extras will the new edition have?
I think there’s an Elmo-related DVD extra. As you probably know, Elmo was merely a chorus member when we made Follow That Bird. He would not be plucked from the chorus for a few years.
Have you seen much of today’s Sesame Street? Do you have any thoughts about what made it so extra-special back in the ’80s?
I certainly wouldn’t want to compare then and now. But I can tell you that one of the things that I really appreciated about the Muppet characters and the Sesame Street characters is that as a storyteller, you always want to have characters who have a strong point of view and who are committed to that point of view. The worst thing in the world is to read a screenplay in which the characters just seem to exist to serve a plot – as opposed to, are defined by a really compelling point of view.
As funny as it sounds, doing Follow That Bird taught me a lot about character development. The Count has one agenda: He has to count things. He’s so single-minded. It applies to every one of those characters – that’s why to me, they’re so memorable and resonate with people. It’s not because they’re necessarily funny. They are – but it is because they’re defined by a really solid goal. Cookie Monster is hungry. Telly Monster sees both sides of any problem. He’s committed to not having a point of view. It’s like he’s single-mindedly committed to waffling.
What is Big Bird’s distinguishing feature?
Well, I think that . . . that’s actually a good question.