My Misspent Youth In Films...
The Muppets Take Manhattan
Directed by: Frank Oz
Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz
Released: July 13, 1984
What I Thought Then
We watched this, The Muppet Movie, and The Great Muppet Caper a lot when I was a kid (and this entry is kind of standing in for all of them), but this was my favorite of the batch. Seriously, it was like kryptonite for me and my sister. As my mother tells it, we saw this in the theater, and in the scene when Kermit shouts from the top of the Empire State Building that he's not going anywhere, my then two-year-old sister stood up in her chair and shouted "Yes! Yes, Kermit!" back at the screen. Oh, and it had that live-action version of Muppet Babies, so that was pretty cool.
What I Think Now
As a rule, Jim Henson productions don't age very well for me (Labyrinth is coming up, so save your bile for that post, okay?). Not because of the puppetry--I still appreciate the craft and it's superbly executed here--but because Henson just wasn't a very compelling a storyteller. He's saccharine when he needs to be cathartic and he never allows narrative tension to develop for more than a scene or two. This works fine when you're writing a fake variety show, but at the scale of a film, it starts to fall apart.
And the story of The Muppets Take Manhattan is a mess. It's fairly Kermit-centric--which is fine, not everything has to be an ensemble--but in practice, what that means is that most of the cast leaves at the end of Act I. Kermit deciding to stay in Manhattan becomes a dark night of the soul moment for him... at the end of Act I. And then, when he finally sells his show on Broadway and calls the rest of the cast back in, he gets hit by a car and gets amnesia, in what feels like a bizarre stall tactic so the movie doesn't have to end just yet. There are a few promising, if underdeveloped, bits of a broader narrative going on. Piggy wants to get married, but Kermit insisted that they needed to be financially stable first, and at the end of their opening night on Broadway, they get married for real. So that pays off. Throughout the movie, Kermit feels like the show is still missing something, and that gets paid off, kinda, in the finale. In other words, this feels very much like a TV show still clumsily finding its footing as it transitions into movies.
Speaking of the TV show... there is a question of continuity. The film doesn't seem to be contiguous with either the show or the previous two films: 1979's The Muppet Movie and 1981's The Great Muppet Caper. Here, the gang all met in college and put together a stage show that was so wildly popular that they decided to try to take it to Broadway after graduation. And yet they still have the same names, same personalities, and same intra-character dynamics as they do in those other properties. It's not "the next Muppet story" but it's also not "a new story starring the Muppets" in the way that Muppet Treasure Island or Muppet Christmas Carol are. It's somewhere in between, and that inability to commit one way or the other took me out of the movie.
The other big problem I had was the Kermit/Piggy romance. Let's leave aside the inter-species-ness of it. That's not inherently problematic for characters made out of felt and padding, as long as it's established (it isn't, but again, let's leave that aside). The problem is that Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are a terrible couple. They have no romantic chemistry--and they never have, and that's kind of the point. Piggy is obsessed with Kermit, but Kermit is blithely ambivalent. That's great for comedy, but there is not a healthy relationship in there. At no point in any of their stories have I ever looked at those two characters and thought "happily ever after". It's more of a "they're going to look back on this and cry and get very drunk" situation.
All of that said... there's a lot of stuff that works really well. The music is great--which is important if you're making a musical--from the performances to the staging it all works really well. The puppetry is how-did-they-even-do-that levels of incredible. Which, honestly, took me out of the movie a little, but wasn't something I ever thought about as a kid. The I'm Gonna Always Love You sequence, which featured muppets as babies and would inspire the Muppet Babies television show--is fantastic, if a teensy bit indulgent. That's actually a lot of this movie. Fantastic, if a teensy bit indulgent. Look, we got Joan Rivers and Liza Minelli to do cameos! Look, Scooter's riding a bicycle! Look, Dabney Coleman is being attacked by puppets with no visible puppeteers! Look, Piggy is chasing a purse-snatcher through Central Park on roller skates!
From a representation/inclusivity standpoint, it's mostly fine, but there are some off-color jokes that feel a little yikes these day. In a scene where Rowlf is running a dog kennel, a client comes in to drop of "Snookums" and the joke is that this pampered little floof is--surprise!--a male. When the client starts baby talking, Rowlf's comment is "you speak Chinese like a native". At one point, Kermit pretends to be a producer, and his disguise includes an afro. He's definitely making fun of "Hollywood" types, but it's hard to tell if there's any ethnic humor being worked into it. Feels like no? Maybe? Then there's the character of Pete, an immigrant of undisclosed origin who runs a restaurant and offers nonsensical advice like "peoples is peoples". First, it's weird that you can't tell what country he's from despite the fact that he runs a restaurant! I mean, really? Who emigrates to America to start an American-style diner? Is it an offensive stereotype? I honestly can't tell. And if so, who is it making fun of? Greeks? Russians? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Maybe? I'm complaining a lot, but I spent a lot of this movie with a smile on my face. It mostly doesn't work, but the parts that do work are fabulous, and at 94 minutes it's a very consumable not-great-movie.