A Look at the Past and Future

While somewhat overshadowed by The Muppets and their huge inventory of moviesmany people do not realize Sesame Street made two theatrical films, 1985’s Follow That Bird and 1999’s The Adventures of Elmo in Grouch Land. With news of a new Sesame Street movie in the works, you may want to refresh your memory on Big Bird and Elmo’s madcap cinematic adventures, especially if you have little ones at home.

1985 was a big year for our friends over on Sesame Street. It saw the premiere of their first theatrical film, Follow That Bird. The film took audiences on a crazy journey through rural America following Big Bird who got tangled up in the bureaucracy of a bird placement program intent on finding orphaned birds and placing them with appropriate families. It was not until 1999 that Sesame Street released their second feature film in the wake of “Elmo fever.” Elmo in Grouch Land saw our favorite red furry monster get sucked into the grouch dimension, where he goes up against an evil thief that may have been a little too scary for small children but has aged like a fine wine.


Follow that Bird

Chevy Chase in Sesame Street
Warner Bros.

Follow that Bird features many great comedy cameos from the 1980s such as Chevy Chase, John Candy, Dave Thomas, and Joe Flaherty, who were fresh off SCTV, a Canadian comedy show that churned out countless stars. Watch for Kermit the Frog and Sandra Bernhard as an overworked waitress in one of the most outrageous food fight scenes ever immortalized on celluloid. It has excellent music and some surprisingly impressive vehicle stunts, not to mention the core Sesame Street cast, who are all in their prime, including Luis, Maria, Gordon, and Bob. These are all actors with actual names as well, but for anyone who grew up watching Sesame Streetit feels wrong to refer to them in any other way than their character names.

Oscar The Grouch, Telly, Cookie Monster, The Count, Burt & Ernie, and Grover all get their close-ups in this fun little slice of ’80s childhood which got buried over the years. Sorry, Abby and Rosita, you two hadn’t been invented yet! Watching the film now packs a pretty potent dose of nostalgia that may take some back to memories of a world riddled with ShowBiz Pizza, A-ha’s “Take On Me” premiering on MTV, and Back To The Future was this crazy fun sci-fi adventure movie you just had to see.

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Kids were less aware of the scary political climate of the Cold War looming and controversial Reaganomics being espoused across the airways. Who could notice such depressing nuances of life when films like Explorers, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, and Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend were filling our hearts and minds with cinematic wonders?

Elmo Fever

Elmo in Grouchland Sesame Street
Columbia TriStar Pictures Releasing

The second installment in the Sesame Street movie franchise was clearly in response to the pop culture phenomenon that is Elmo. While some are surprised to learn Elmo has been a part of the Sesame Street gang since 1980, there was something indelible about Kevin Clash’s development of the character in the 1990s that helped it explode to an irrational degree and has been a staple of childhoods ever since.

The Adventures of Elmo In Grouchland features even more dynamic music and puppetry work as well as a terrific performance by Mandy Patinkin as the film’s villain, Huxley. Movie fans may remember Patinkin’s performance as IƱigo Montoya in 1987’s The Princess Bride. Patinkin is nearly unrecognizable as the thieving bully of Grouchlanda testament to his exceptional performance skills.

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One thing that stands out in Grouchland is the fact that the film has been interrupted numerous times during moments of high dramatic tension by Burt and Ernie, assuring the young audience that everything is going to be okay and there’s no reason to be afraid. One can only speculate a test screening may have been held where kids began melting down as the cinematic presentation demanded too much from their fragile audience’s emotions. Whatever the case may be, it does not ruin the film. Still, it does feel like a band-aid solution to the challenges presented when elevating a property like Sesame Street into the more challenging, dramatic storytelling realm of filmmaking.

The Third Installment

Sesame Street Sign

What we know so far about the upcoming Sesame Street film is that it will star Anne Hathaway as a “plucky history show host” helping the gang find their way back to Sesame Street after getting lost in New York City. The production has been stalled several times due to the pandemic. It also sounds like the movie will be leaning hard into the DNA of the Sesame Street theme song and will feature music from comedian and songwriter Bo Burnham.

There’s also talk of the city’s mayor being a villain in the film, with a desire to keep Sesame Street hidden from public view. This plays well into the concept of Sesame Street being a fabrication of reality, something most kids pondered as they consumed the show’s educational yet addictive formula on a daily basis. The success of the PBS program created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett can not be understated in 2022.

Premiering in 1969, the goal was to educate children in underserved urban communities using public television to reach their target audience. The show took the world by storm in a way that no one anticipated. The genius move to employ Jim Henson’s signature approach to puppetry fabrication and performance may have been what single-handedly elevated the brand to worldwide acclaim.

Nevertheless, the children themselves grew into parents, passing the torch down to the next generation again and again. That may be responsible for the brand living on and on for as long as humans walk the earth.

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