The Muppets Take Manhattan
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
There’s no doubt about it, the Muppets, created by Jim Henson, became some of the most iconic characters made for either kids or adults to have ever been introduced to us. Their musical talents, goofy personalities, and colorful diversity left a mark in pop culture, and remained iconic characters for many years to come. I was fortunate enough to have grown up with them, thanks to such films as The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppet Christmas Carol. In fact, I have to give the Muppets credit, this was where I was first introduced to Charles Dickens’ classic story as a result.
But then, something strange happened when I was a couple years away from graduating high school: I stumbled into a Muppet movie that not only kept the classic Muppet spirit alive and fresh, but it left its mark on me in a way that only grew with me, which no other Muppet movie I saw before it did. What was that movie?
The Muppets Take Manhattan.
In this movie, Kermit the Frog and his friends were college students who were graduating, but not before going out with a bang with a senior variety show they put together called "Manhattan Melodies". Just then, an enthusiastic audience member mentioned that they’ll see them in Broadway, and this gave the Muppets the idea to pitch their show to potential Broadway producers in New York City, thinking that they would’ve gone gaga over a musical entitled "Manhattan Melodies". Their first attempt to greenlight it went south when the Broadway producer they met up with turned out to be a con artist in disguise. But hey, at least that was a first try, disastrous as it ended up. Surely, they would have had more luck with all the producers they had left to interview, right?
Actually, no. In their pursuit to reach out to as many Broadway producers in New York City as possible, instead of making the big time, all they got was one rejection after another until they all ended up broke.
After Kermit and the gang parted ways, he decided to stay behind in New York City and work in a low-grade restaurant called Pete’s Luncheonette to keep himself financially steady. There, he worked under the hopes that he would not only get his friends back together, somehow, but also to finally have the musical greenlit by whoever would’ve taken the slightest interest in his work.
To start things off, I really liked Kermit and how determined he was throughout the movie to get "Manhattan Melodies" greenlit in New York City, no matter what it took. You can feel his angst, his determination, and his unwillingness to let his multitude of failures stop him.
The rest of the Muppet characters left their impressions in ways that hit home just how special they were. Fozzie Bear was still the soft-hearted comedian who cracked a bear joke every once in a while, Gonzo was still the klutz who had a knack for daredevil stunts, the Electric Mayhem was still the loud, endearing, and rocking band who always stood together, Scooter was still the modest kid with the glasses, and Miss Piggy was still the loving but fierce girlfriend of Kermit the Frog.
The movie was also nice enough to introduce us to Rizzo the Rat; having made his debut in The Great Muppet Caper, he was shown here as being brash and crude, and, as a result, was a charming character. It was also neat to watch him and his rat clan work in Pete's restaurant, resulting in some humorous but understandable complaints about them being in the restaurant at all.
In fact, I was pleasantly intrigued by what the Muppet gang had as jobs after splitting up. Fozzie attempted to hibernate in Maine with some other bears, but to no avail. Gonzo performed daredevil stunts in Michigan with his chicken girlfriend, Camilla, to mixed results. Rowlf watched over a dog clinic in Delaware, and Scooter 'managed' a movie theater in Cleveland, Ohio. At one point, he had to deal with Lew Zealand, who attended a 3D picture about killer fish and made it into 4D with his boomerang fishes, and that was just funny to watch. Also, the Electric Mayhem performed gigs in Pittsburgh, PA, but compared to everyone else, that's all we see them do. And this leads to Miss Piggy, but I'll get to her in a minute.
The human supporting characters, while not compelling, were still likable. Pete, the manager of his restaurant, spoke in a stilted English that was a tad difficult for the characters to understand, but his statements about life in New York City were weirdly endearing.
Jenny, his daughter, was sweet if also a tad uninteresting. What made her compelling was that she was hoping to pass some courses she was taking in order to get into a fashion design college. She was made even more compelling when we see her work her fashion magic for Kermit's own stunts to further promote "Manhattan Melodies".
Ronnie Crawford, the producer who expressed an interest in "Manhattan Melodies", was a pleasant, suave, enthusiastic guy who's the son of Bernard Crawford, a heralded Broadway producer.
Getting back to what Miss Piggy did when she parted ways with Kermit, she stayed behind in New York, and when she wasn't busy with her perfume job, she spied on Kermit and Jenny whenever they were together, suspecting that Kermit was going out with her instead. I'll admit, the outbursts she gave every time Jenny hugged Kermit in gratitude were pretty funny, and it was especially interesting to watch considering that Kermit never knew she was watching them, let alone around.
Sadly, however, this introduces my biggest nitpick with the movie: I was confused about Miss Piggy's decision to stay in New York City after it looked like she was going away, just like the rest of the gang. Was she planning on moving after all before changing her mind and getting off at the next stop or something? And what compelled her to stay in New York? Was it because of the perfume job she had, or was she that suspicious and that turned off by Kermit and Jenny's interactions? It was a bit hard to tell. But like I said, that's just a nitpick; it at least led to some funny moments, some enlightening moments, and a satisfactory resolution between Kermit and Miss Piggy. Besides, Miss Piggy did mention earlier that she and Kermit were planning on getting married, anyway, so if that's the case, I do understand.
But let's get to what really surprised me about the movie. One, while it did a nice job delivering on the humor expected of the Muppets, it also allowed the severity of certain travesties to sink in for the audience; when the Muppets, especially Kermit, felt down on their luck, you could really feel their pain, and it resulted in some genuinely emotional moments that tugged at the heartstrings. "Saying Goodbye"? Sheesh! This song was reportedly one of the saddest songs that anyone who grew up with it has ever heard. And I don't blame them. The song dug itself deep with its message of splitting apart, as much as it hurts, and the hope for a chance of reuniting, no matter how unlikely it may seem.
The movie even did a nice job playing with all kinds of emotions: while "Saying Goodbye" left viewers like me a bit melancholic, "He'll Make Me Happy", I'm not kidding, left me with tears of joy on my face every single time. The way the song was sung, it felt as if the marriage between Kermit and Miss Piggy was one of the most anticipated events in all of Muppethood, and the song went all out there as such. Without giving anything away, I especially loved the wedding sequence for how ambiguous it was. That only made it even more memorable.
The next big thing I liked about this movie might also be its strong point. Unlike the first two Muppet movies, this one decided to take a more grounded approach with its story, especially concerning what it takes to achieve fame and fortune. For example, The Muppet Movie told its own story effectively, no doubt, but it expressed the likelihood of making the big time in Hollywood in a sort of starry-eyed fashion. When Kermit the Frog made it to World Wide Studios to audition as the requested frog, along with his friends, the manager gave them the job, as if a stroke of good luck came down upon them.
Prepare the standard rich-and-famous contract for Kermit the Frog and company.
The Muppets Take Manhattan, however, was more realistic about those ambitions. As it's presented, it can be interpreted as the movie saying, 'the road to being rich and famous is not impossible, but it's no walk in Central Park, either'. This was actually one of the things I liked the most about La La Land; what I really liked about its message was that you should never give up in spite of the number of roadblocks life may throw at you. Because in Mia's case, one interested producer is all it would take to pave the road to stardom you craved.
If anything, The Muppets Take Manhattan knew more about showbiz than The Muppet Movie did.
In fact, I ought to tip my hat to the movie for having its interested producer, Ronnie Crawford, be a young up-and-coming producer. Not only did he personally invite Kermit to a meeting in a letter that he signed under his father's name, but he wanted to start his own stage career with a musical that he felt was different yet revigorating. In turn, he served as a good example of budding producers who wanted to make a big first impression.
But it didn't stop there; the portrayal of New York City felt refreshing, too. One of the reasons may be that, also unlike the first two Muppet movies, this movie didn't even have a villain. The closest things it had to villains were one, the first 'Broadway producer' the Muppets encountered, who they thought was Martin Price, but was exposed as a conman who cheated people out of their money named Murray Plotsky. And two, a purse-snatcher to whom Miss Piggy gave chase after he stole her purse. But even then, they were never evil masterminds whose sole purpose in the movie was to deliberately make the Muppets' lives miserable. They were just introduced as part of the movie's demonstration of the criminal activities that are to be expected in such metropolises as New York City. Even the higher-ups who turned down Kermit's pitches of the show, they weren't portrayed as self-conceited snobs, they just expressed no interest in his work. We even see one of the producers toss the script into the trash bin minutes after Kermit gave it to him and left his room. I like entertainment that does not show the world or its characters as being black and white, and that there would be some gray areas worth bringing into discussion, especially for kids. The way these were portrayed as authentically as they were, not to mention the way they challenged the characters without being overdone, makes me respect the movie a lot more for that.
And as for the third reason I like this movie? Well, if there's one other thing that propelled the Muppets into stardom during its early run, it was the celebrity cameos it had. Though I still feel like The Muppet Movie had the strongest collection of cameos, which included Big Bird, Edgar Bergen, Dom DeLuise, Steve Martin, Bob Hope, and even Orson Welles, this movie might have the lion's share of cameos out of all of them. They included human stars, like WarGames' Dabney Coleman as Murray Plotsky, Joan Rivers, Arthur's Liza Minnelli, and of course, Art Carney as Bernard Crawford. But it also included the Muppet characters, too. "I'm Always Gonna Love You", which in and of itself was a cute song, introduced the world to the Muppet Babies, who became so popular that they eventually got their own TV show. And during the wedding sequence, the characters in attendance ranged from the tertiary characters from the show, to Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock and almost the entire cast of Sesame Street. This collection of cameos was monumental, and I swear, if the Muppet Babies and the rest of the Fraggle Rock cast were in attendance, too, you would have had arguably the most epic Muppet crossover ever to be assembled.
Besides the songs I already mentioned, I found the rest of the songs to be pretty catchy, including "Together Again", "You Can't Take No For An Answer", "Somebody's Getting Married", and even the "Rat Scat", which included some phenomenal puppet work by Jim Henson, not to mention introduced us to rats cooking in the kitchen before Ratatouille made it look cool.
And finally, I was impressed by the subplot where Kermit was run over after getting "Manhattan Melodies" greenlit with Ronnie, and got amnesia before regaining his memory in time for premiere night. On paper, this may look like one of the most standard, clichéd plot threads that could possibly have been thought up for Kermit when he was at this level of accomplishment. In execution, however, there were only two things that changed it drastically: one, JUST before Kermit was run over, he asked Miss Piggy and Jenny to write back to their friends and bring them back for the production of "Manhattan Melodies". It was fortunate that he passed that along to them before his unfortunate accident. And two, Ronnie notified everyone as soon as they reunited that his father requested for the musical to premiere in a deadline of two weeks. These circumstances made what would otherwise have been a boring, unneeded subplot feel surprisingly suspenseful.
And even then, that subplot wasn't without its strengths. In his amnesiac state, Kermit met up with a group of frogs who struggled to get their marketing material off the ground, specifically concerning a brand of soap called Ocean Breeze. Then, Kermit, who nicknamed himself Phil - or should I say Phillip Phil? - collaborated with these frogs, named Bill, Gil, and Jill, to get their product sold. Phil, Bill, Gil, and Jill, I can't get enough of the rhythm that comes with saying all four of these names in a row. And this one bit of conversation they had while at lunch?
- This time, I'll take the bill, Gil.
- Oh, good. Something from the grill, Jill?
- No. Meat makes me ill, Gil.
That was just priceless.
The end result is a Muppet movie that is fun, funny, and whimsical, but also strong, smart, and pensive. It delights with not only a perfect balance of the classic wit and humor recognizable with the Muppet characters and a surprising helping of good drama, but also a fresh spin on the 'road to stardom' plot, as well as a portrayal of New York City in some of its more beautiful moments and even in some of its more uncompromising moments.
I may still have a soft spot for all the Muppet movies and shows that left their imprint on my childhood, but as weird as this is about to sound, even for me, The Muppets Take Manhattan is the most underrated of all the Muppet movies, as well as one of my favorites in general. I love how charming it is, I love how emotional it is, I love how persistent it is, and I especially love how realistic it is.
Simply put, this tale of the Muppets taking on the Big Apple is one big apple of my eye.
My Rating: a strong A-
Something I thought was weird was, if Murray Plotsky was taking over in Martin Price's spot and posing as him, where was the real Martin Price? Or was the name 'Martin Price' and the stage profession that came with it all made up? The implications actually feel more ominous than it does ambiguous, so let's leave it at that.
Before he and the gang parted ways, Kermit mentioned to Jenny how he and his friends became broke but still wished to get his show up on Broadway. Jenny responded by telling him that when Pete came to America, he was broke, too. This was a nice detail to bring up: not only does this tie in nicely with the movie's message of not giving up, but it also hinted at the immigration experiences that went on in New York during the late 19th, early 20th centuries.
What little we saw of "Manhattan Melodies" was surprisingly short, and it had an all-too simple premise: a couple kids come to New York City to get married, all set to songs and dances. Assuming that the musical had enough material to last the three-hour runtime, however (and I mean including the overture, the intermission, the exit music, the works), I can only imagine what more the musical had that made it such a hit worth greenlighting. My guess is that it had a more complicated love story that'd be right up Woody Allen's alley. What do YOU think it would've had that made it such a beloved hit? Share your thoughts with me. I'd like to hear more about it.