Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: The Muppets — following the schtick-heavy misadventures of an eclectic race of puppet-like beings who thrive and survive amongst us in the regular human world. Birthed in the mid-1950’s by puppeteering super-champ Jim Henson for use in advertising commercials, the Muppet aesthetic/brand has since infiltrated every conceivable niche, medium and outlet imaginable, including television, music albums, motion pictures, video games, comic books, view finder stories, and literature. Since I imagine some may be disappointed to learn that I won’t be covering The Muppet Show, I figure an explanation is due… The reason is twofold: 1) While The Muppet Show is obviously where Henson’s Muppet creations solidified into the form we think of when we hear “the Muppets,” it was really just the culmination point of Henson’s success story; several of the central Muppets, like Kermit, Rolph and Gonzo, had already existed for many years by that point, as had the word “Muppet” to describe them. And more importantly, 2) TV is a can o’ worms. Why include that show and not Sam and Friends, Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Hour, Muppet Babies, Little Muppet Monsters, Muppets Tonight, etc, etc? And then there are the crazy number of TV movies and specials. It defeats the entire purpose of this column for me to pick and choose installments based on what I think is “good” or “relevant.” It is easier and frankly I think more interesting to boil the franchise down to something that is readily discussable — like the Muppets’ ventures onto the big screen. So, for the sake of tidiness, I will be battling the six theatrical feature films, plus the forthcoming The Muppets relaunch.
The Installment: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
We join Kermit and the gang during the closing number of “Manhattan Melodies,” a musical Kermit wrote for his college’s senior variety show. Yes, the Muppets are in college. Or rather they have just graduated college. Flush with praise from their peers, the Muppets journey to New York to become stars on Broadway. Alas, no Broadway producers are interested in taking a chance on a frog and his animal friends (clearly they should have just sent in Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem; other than Animal, aren’t they humans? Though, Dr. Teeth has green skin and Janice has no nose, so maybe they’re technically monsters. I don’t know). The stress of rejection starts to wear on Kermit, which makes the other Muppets feel guilty. In a misguided bid to help Kermit, the other Muppets lie and say they all received job offers out of town and need to leave. Left alone in NY, Kermit makes friends with Jenny (Juliana Donald), a wannabe fashion designer, and her father, Pete (Louis Zorich), who gives Kermit a job washing dishes at his restaurant. Jenny helps Kermit try and get his musical off the ground, and eventually the two succeed. Unfortunately, just after Kermit has sealed his deal with a producer, he is hit by a cab and loses his memory. Piggy calls all the Muppets back to NY and they must locate Kermit before their opening night. Will they pull it off? Nope. In fact, they all die in a heinous mass-rape-murder-suicide. Just kidding. They pull it off.
Muppets Take Manhattan is a minor – yet felt – departure from the first two Muppet films. As I said last time, if we wanted to get all fanboy on the franchise, we can choose to view this film as a project made by the Muppets at World Wide Studios. But as far as what the film gives us at face value, it completely diverts from the reality the first two films had established. Unlike Caper, this doesn’t begin with Kermit as himself explaining to us that we’re about to see the Muppets acting in a movie. Kermit is still Kermit, but now Kermit and the gang are college friends. They no longer dream of being movie stars. They want to sing and dance on Broadway. Which, I suppose, is sort of what The Muppet Show was. Either way, we’re dealing with something of a reboot here. This change is neither good nor bad; so it might as well fall in the “What Works” section. The Muppet franchise is completely silly and ridiculous and boundary-ignoring to begin with, so while I can see the logic of continuing with their Hollywood adventures, I can also see the logic of whogivesashit. And there is something enchantingly dumb about the Muppets as college students; made more dumb/fun by the fact that this isn’t even a “Muppets Go To College” film; the film opens with them about to leave the university — a strange university at which a totally average-looking cross-section of students apparently really, really love old-fashioned show tunes, based on their reaction to “Manhattan Melodies.”
Manhattan is the first Muppet film with a legitimate story. Muppet Movie was little more than a series of sketches and musical numbers strung together by the thread of a road trip. Caper had a more conventional story, but the film was so meta and schtick-heavy that its not like you ever took it seriously — Charles Grodin, our villain, maintained a Christopher-Walken-on-SNL level of wackily-detached commitment to his character. While still maintaining a cartoonish tone, Manhattan has an otherwise irony-free story that asks for a genuine connection from us. This has its drawbacks (which I’ll get to in the next section), but it also has its merits. As we discussed in their respective installments, the first two films both lost some steam moving towards Act III, entirely because it is hard to stay emotionally invested in something that is all one big silly joke. Manhattan has its narrative flaws, but it is the first Muppet film that actually gets better as we move into the final third. I bet if you asked someone to describe the plot of Manhattan they’d say it was about Kermit getting amnesia and the other Muppets searching for him (that’s how I remembered it at least). But Kermit gets hit by the cab at around the 60 minute mark in a 90 minute film. When Piggy got arrested in Caper it felt like a funny plot point. When Kermit gets hit by the cab and we cut to the other Muppets, later that night, still unable to locate him, it plays emotionally as well as a plot complication. For lack of a better word, Manhattan is more human than the previous films. Muppet Movie also dealt with the Muppets trying to become famous, but their obstacle was Hopper, who has nothing to do with that goal. The whole joke was that the moment they actually arrive in Hollywood, they get a “standard rich and famous” contract. In Manhattan they arrive in NY in the first several minutes, and the whole movie is Kermit’s struggle. Which makes the low moment where Kermit is on an observation deck overlooking the city at night, and triumphantly decides not to give up, screaming “I’m staying! You hear that, New York? The frog is staying!” carry more weight.
Forefront of the emotional escalation in the film is the relationship of Kermit and Piggy. Manhattan is the first film to begin with Kermit and Piggy already an item, and the first not to play with Piggy almost fucking Kermit over while chasing fame. Not to mention Kermit has promised Piggy that they will get married once they establish themselves on Broadway, which lends greater significance to their ups and downs. When the other Muppets leave town, Piggy stays behind to spy on Kermit, farcically getting the wrong idea about Kermit’s entirely platonic relationship with Jenny. This leads to several funny bits, like a Central Park rollerskating chase, and my favorite, Piggy getting catcalled by some gross construction workers while spying on Kermit from across a street. It also leads to what is probably the film’s most famous scene, the “Muppet babies” fantasy that inspired the spin-off animated Muppet Babies Saturday morning cartoon. The scene comes after Kermit has discovered Piggy is still in NY and the two take a romantic carriage ride together, with Piggy talking about what life might have been like if they’d all met as kids, and the scene is strangely more fun than it seems like it has any right to be (like many kids of the 80’s, when I saw Manhattan in the theater I lost my shit over the baby Muppets; I wanted more, and I couldn’t believe I actually got it). It is a notable shift from the conclusions of the other films that Manhattan continues past the climactic “Manhattan Melodies” performance to Kermit and Piggy getting married, in a ceremony attended by the vast majority of Jim Henson’s puppet creations. I greatly enjoyed the “meet cute” Kermit-Piggy romances in the first two films, but there was presumably only so many times we can see that before it gets old. Dealing with the escalation of their relationship, including seeing baby Muppets in a nursery (even if those babies are technically them in the past), was a nice step forward, even if this film is something of a reboot.
While still no where near the monumental awesomeness of The Muppet Movie‘s soundtrack, Manhattan‘s songs – written by Jeff Moss and composed by Oscar-winning Bob Fosse collaborator Ralph Burns – are a big step up from Caper. The film’s main theme, “Together Again,” is rather catchy, which is important for the narrative, as it is this tune the rejoins Kermit with the other Muppets when he has amnesia — when the Kermit finds himself inexplicably playing the simple notes to the song’s hook on some glasses of water (each coincidentally filled to produce the notes the song requires, of course), and the other Muppets over hear it. And I particularly like the Kermit whistle/scat version of the song that opens the film. “I’m Gonna Always Love You,” the doo wop song the Muppet Babies sing is quite fun. And “Saying Goodbye,” the number we get when all the other Muppets are sadly leaving Manhattan, is solidly wistful, as we see the respective ways the various characters exit the city — Fozzie ridin’ the rail like a hobo, Gonzo in the back of a farm truck, Piggy waving goodbye to Kermit from a moving train, etc.
Some of the film’s best bits come from the letters the out-of-town Muppets send Kermit, in which they try and put a positive spin on the awful things they’re currently doing (the gag being that we’re seeing the awful truth accompanied by positive narration). They’re all fairly funny, but the two funniest ones are Rowlf and Fozzie. Rowlf, nonsensically, is the clerk at a dog kennel where he is forced to deal with an over-fastidious dog owner played by James Coco. In Muppet Movie Fozzie gained access to his uncle’s Studebaker because his uncle was hibernating. Now Fozzie finally joins the rest of his clan, who are all snoring the days away inside a cave while Fozzie clings to his teddy bear trying to fall asleep. He also finds himself next to a female bear who wants to snuggle, which Fozzie finds oddly terrifying. Is Fozzie gay? Or just a lame virgin? Who is to say? I say gay.
Mad About You‘s Louis Zorich is great as Pete, the ambiguously-foreign restaurant owner, who loves giving the Muppets incomprehensible pep-talks that all hinge on his incomprehensible philosophical motto that “peoples is peoples.” The celebrity cameos are all great too, with Joan Rivers having a wonderful highlight as Piggy’s coworker in the make-up/perfume section of a department store, who cheers Piggy up by giving both of them a frenzied and ad-libbed make-over that gets them both fired, but is a great moment of friendly female bonding that we don’t usually get much of from the Muppets. Dabney Coleman also has a fun scene as a conman posing as a producer, who is suspiciously over impressed by Kermit’s pitch – “Songs and dances?!” – and who keeps suggesting that the show needs “shootings.”
The film has a lot of memorable bits. The Muppets sleeping in the bus terminal’s lockers instead of getting a hotel (pic at bottom). Rizzo the rat’s scatting musical number while his rat buddies work in Pete’s kitchen — skating around the grill on slabs of butter, swimming in the coffee, etc. The series of ridiculous personas Kermit adopts (with costumes courtesy of Jenny) while trying to get his show off the ground; like a sleazy fast-talker who says things like, “My reservation secretary made a reservation for me.” And the most interesting bits of the film: amnesia Kermit. After leaving the hospital, Kermit becomes convinced his name is Phil, and gets a Mad Men job writing advertising copy for an ad firm run by other Muppet frogs. I love the scenes with these four frogs together, who speak in lines that tend to end with words that rhyme with “gill” and who all have voices that sound vaguely like Kermit. In fact, Kermit’s own voice changes to something akin to a bad Kermit impression.
What Doesn’t Work:
To pointlessly continue with the Star Wars parallel I started last time, if Great Muppet Caper was Empire Strikes Back, then this is definitely the Return of the Jedi of the original Jim Henson-guided Muppet trilogy. For fans who felt that Caper had improved upon the Muppet feature film formula by making things weirder, drier and a bit more “sophisticated,” Manhattan is likely something of a letdown. Like Jedi, the movie has some of the most memorable bits of the trilogy, and a slew of really fantastic set pieces and scenes, but coming on the heels of Caper it feels decidedly, well, “kiddie.” The tone of the Muppets is alive and well in the film, but things have been watered down in the writing category. At least as far as the schtick comedy is concerned. The movie has almost no high-concept word play. No puns. No meta “this is all a movie” gags. The first two movies were written by Muppet Show head writers, but I don’t think that it the culprit, considering Frank Oz has writing credit here, and screenwriters Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses both wrote for The Carol Burnett Show. It’s not like hacks took over. Possibly Henson himself was less involved in the film, tending to the ever-expanding Henson empire. Who knows. And it’s not like the film isn’t funny. It’s just a slightly different kind of funny. One seemingly more palpable for youngsters. And like Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (both accused of similar things), Manhattan was definitely my favorite of the original three films when I was a kid. Viewing it now as an adult, it is not as impressive as the first two films. As I said, it fosters more of an emotional connection, but that is not what I’m looking for from a Muppet movie. I want the schtick. I want the word play and puns. And though I don’t mind that the series broke with its existing reality established in the first two films, it is nonetheless a little boring, from a story perspective, that we’re again seeing the Muppets’ rise to stardom now twice in only three films. Caper showed what sort of adventures the Muppets could have, so this inherently feels like a safe step backward; made worse by the watering down of the humor’s schtick. The film just doesn’t feel as sharp or witty as the first two films. So, at the end of the day, even though I may have been more emotionally invested in the story, I was less mentally invested in the film.
Jenny is not a good character. It is no real fault of Juliana Donald, though she certainly doesn’t add much to the character. I see nothing intrinsically wrong with mixing Muppet heroes with human heroes, but the fact that her scenes with Kermit tend to stop the film cold does offer fodder for the argument that they shouldn’t be mixed. Jenny very much embodies the saccharine family-film tone Manhattan has at its worst moments (I call them the Jenny moments; cause she’s in them). The Muppets are so great and funny that when we’re just dealing with them it is easy to forget that we’re not getting the wacky word play we normally get, that Fozzie isn’t telling bad jokes, that Kermit isn’t constantly giving asides to the camera. But Jenny makes the film feel safe and sappy. Once Kermit gets amnesia and is removed from Jenny, the film suddenly picks up; it becomes clear that Kermit should have gotten amnesia significantly earlier in the film than the 60-minute mark. Probably like the 40-minute mark. Or earlier even. The Kermit/Jenny duo section of the film is only good for allowing Piggy to get jealous. And that could have been accomplished in any number of ways.
I don’t think it necessarily hurt the movie that much, but watching these movies one after another, I missed the strong buddy relationship Kermit and Fozzie had in the first two films, which is absent from Manhattan. Fozzie is just one of the gang. And then he is literally absent for a huge chunk of the film.
Celebrity Cameo Count: 12 — though I don’t know if John Landis should count, as the normals couldn’t possibly have been expected to recognize him. I’m also not counting Gates McFadden, who had yet to become famous for Star Trek: Next Generation.
Best Celebrity Cameo: Joan Rivers has the best scene, but the cameo that made me laugh the most was Elliot Gould making his second cameo in three films as a police officer who has this great brief exchange with Kermit:
Policeman: Hey! Watch it!
Kermit the Frog: Oh, sorry. I gotta get a contract so I can go out and kill ‘em.
Policeman: (beat; then dismissing suspicions) Nahhh!
Rizzo: What’s this supposed to be?
Pete: Is grits! Grits! Hominy grits!
Rizzo: How should I know how many? Count ‘em yourself.
Worst (aka Best) Fozzie Joke: Sadly, not applicable.
Most Ridiculous/Bizarre Joke: The Muppet Babies scene.
Best Meta Moment/Line: Not applicable either.
Joke No Child Could Understand: Rowlf talking with the fastidious dog owner.
Dog Owner: Snookums prefers the rubber Wall Street Journal to the rubber Washington Post.
Rowlf: Don’t we all?
Sadly Under-Featured Muppet: Bunsen and Beaker. Again!
Should There Have Been a Sequel: Yup. Keep ‘em coming.
Up Next: The Muppet Christmas Carol