I was twenty-six years old in 1984 and I had no kids, but this was still the movie I had the strongest desire to see in this week of that great year. I am a Muppet fan from way back. I have always tried to keep the Muppets alive by buying videos, seeing the films and owning toys (Yes, for my kids when they came around also, but mostly for me). Next to the original “Muppet Movie“, this may be my favorite.
This is a backstage musical, with an Academy Award nominated score, and a real romantic send off for Kermit and Miss Piggy. It is a delight from beginning to end. There are a couple of weak moments here and there but the total effect is whimsy and charm. I saw this movie at the Mann Huntington Oaks 6, a strip mall theater in Monrovia California that only operated for about eight years. There was one large screen theater and several smaller houses. “The Muppets Take Manhattan” played in the big theater when it opened and I saw a matinee show that was sparsely attended in the opening week. Today the theater no longer exists and in it’s place is a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. The venue was a very 80’s location, I remember having lunch at the Black Angus after seeing the movie.
Kermit and Company should always be singing and dancing in movies. Their natural environment is a vaudeville theater and putting them on stage is just what they do best. It is true though, that when they go on location, there is something magic as well. The Muppets in the sunshine, out on the streets of Manhattan, pop and their colorful presence just seems to zoom off the screen. Before they get to New York, the story has them graduating from college and performing at their colleges Spring show. Kermit has written and directed a musical revue that the student audience loves and the other Muppet grads are all in the cast. The opening of the show is really the opening of the movie after the establishing shots of the University done in the now familiar helicopter flyover sweep.The stage set and costumes really do convey a college based show pretty effectively. I know that most private collages have a “Spring Fling” or a “Songfest” revue that the theater and music departments stage for their college audience, this feels very much like that kind of a show. The production department probably was full of people who participated in that type of show themselves so they knew what was needed. Everyone seeing one of those shows probably remembers saying about a couple of the performers, “Man are they talented, we’ll be seeing them again someday.” There is always a standout that seems to have what it would take on Broadway or in the movies. The conceit here is that the whole cast feels that way about themselves and they don’t really want to go their separate ways after graduation. They convince Kermit that they should try to take the show to Broadway themselves.
What follows are a series of sketches that play on the idea of naive young talent trying to get their foot in the door of the professional world. They get doors slammed in their faces routinely. In one sequence there is a scam artist who wants to produce the play for them, all they need to do is come up with $300, each, and it will be a go. Lucky for our gang, they have no money and that is the moment when the cops show up with another victim of the oldest pay for play dodge on the books.
With money running out, they decide they are putting too much pressure on Kermit and they will all hit the road to find jobs until he can get their breakthrough. This segment features the sentimental ballad, “Saying Goodby”, and has each set of friends going off in different ways. Kermit and Piggy say goodbye in a train station in a shot that could have come from any of a hundred old movies. Kermit gets a job at the diner where they all had their last meeting and where they know that they can get in touch with him. Rizzo the Rat is one of the workers at the diner and he gets his rat friends jobs working in the diner and the result is as you would expect, customers are not pleased to be served by rats. Naturally, Nick the kind hearted owner just moves them to the kitchen to cook. One of the rats is nick named Tatooey, because of the anchor tattoo on his chest. So twenty years before Pixar thought of it, Rat Tattooey was working in the kitchen in a Muppet movie.
Now the plot thickens as it turns out Miss Piggy has not left town at all. She is pretty possessive of her frog and she stays in New York to keep an eye on him. She mistakes the friendly human waitress as a romantic rival and spies on Kermit on her lunch hour or after work. The weakest scene in the movie for me was when she and her co-worker at the perfume and make up counter in a haughty department store, start doing makeovers. Her co-worker is played by Joan Rivers, before the plastic surgeries got out of hand. The director Frank Oz, lets the sequence go on too long and lets it get over the top. It is a very slapstick kind of moment but I found it less funny with each passing second. Fortunately the two of them get fired for making such a mess and that situation will never be revisited. A couple of slap stick sequences involving Kermit do work much better than the one in the department store. Kermit tries to pass himself off as a producer to get some credibility with one of the theatrical agencies he wants to put his show on. He dresses up as a 70s version of a Hollywood hipster and crashes a meeting with the agency head played by director John Landis. Frank Oz has appeared in a number of John Landis’ films in minor roles so it seems fitting in this his first solo directing job, Oz gets his friend in the movie. Kermit also tries a “whispering campaign” to try and get New York society to talk about the project. He recruits the rats from the kitchen to spread rumors while he poses as a somebody in Sardi’s, the famous cafe with the caricatures of celebrities on the walls. He replaces a picture of Liza Minelli with one of himself in his “producer” get up. Of course the plot is complicated when the real Liza comes in and wonders why her picture has been replaced on the wall. According to IMDB, the picture of Kermit is still on the wall at Sardi’s.Another comedic way of filling in the time until their break comes, involves scenes where the scattered Muppets write to Kermit about what they are doing while waiting for his call. Gonzo and Camilla are part of an Aqucade, Dr. Teeth and the band are doing polka tunes at a state fair, and Rowlf the dog is managing a dog kennel. Each of these bits gets a short visualization with some cute punchlines. The movie is full of the silly puns and throw away jokes that fill most of the Muppet work.
Many of you will remember the cartoon series of the Muppet Babies. They made their first appearance in this movie an a fantasy sequence when Piggy and Kermit reconcile. The baby Muppets sing a fifties style number in which Piggy declares her love for Kermit and her dreams for the future. A lot of people did not care for the cartoon, but the visualization of the babies in this movie is all charm and the song is a dandy. Naturally, there is finally a break and the show gets a first time producer and is a go. But before it can launch, another complication ensues. Kermit has an accident and is plagued by amnesia (yes it does sound like a bad soap plot). The gang has to prepare the show and search for Kermit before the big opening night. Fortunately, everything gets resolved and the big show can go on. The staging of the Broadway version of the revue is a lot more elaborate and is designed to get as many of the Muppet characters into the movie as possible. The costuming is more splashy and the sets come alive with animated mannequins and buses and planes moving across the stage for the big number “Somebody’s Getting Married”. I enjoyed the fact that penguins manage the Tuxedo shop, and that the bride and groom have to be pulled away from each other when they encounter one another at the bakery in the process of preparing the wedding. It really looks like a show stopping scene from a Broadway musical. There is actual choreography even though we never see the feet of the characters touching the ground during the dance number here. The songs of Jeff Moss for the whole film are really excellent. He is a long time composer of songs for Sesame Street, and there is a level of sophistication to the lyrics and the styles that will surprise you coming from a writer for a show for pre-schoolers.
The climax of the revue (and the movie) is the wedding sequence where Kermit and Piggy get hitched. I remember seeing the characters interviewed on “Entertainment Tonight” and the joke was that Miss Piggy had substituted a real minister in for the actor cast as a minister and that the wedding was therefore real. It was a funny promotional concept but it never went anywhere after that. Oz had a great eye and ear for the musical sequences and that is probably why he was a natural for directing “Little Shop of Horrors” two years later. (The fact that the star of that movie is a twelve foot high puppet may also have had something to do with it.)
The two most recent Muppet films have not been made by the original team. Of course Jim Henson was lost way too early, but Frank Oz stayed involved up though “Muppets in Space” in 1999. He was not enthusiastic about “The Muppets” in 2011. I think his worries were misplaced. Earlier this year we got “Muppets Most Wanted“, and so, thirty years after “The Muppets Take Manhattan, there are still Muppet projects making their way into our homes and hearts. If you are one of those people who does not enjoy the Muppets, I’m afraid I will have to pity you. I can’t imagine how miserable your life has to be to not enjoy a movie like this.