By Tom Kapr
The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood – sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I have grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.
“Dear bears and chickens and things: Is New York. Is play. Is TIME!”
As a child in the 80s, you had your big four magic-makers of movies and television: you had your Disney, you had your Lucasfilm, you had your Amblin Entertainment… and then you had your Muppets.
The Muppets are unlike anything that ever has been or ever will be. It takes almost no imagination to believe in the wonderful illusion of life begun by Jim Henson over half a century ago. The illusion is certainly easy to believe while watching a movie starring these puppets, but just watch any on-the-spot interview or interaction between a Muppet and a human being, and challenge yourself not to forget you’re watching a puppet. For all we know, these characters exist in our reality. Given the proper circumstances, you could find yourself talking to a Muppet face to face one day, and even then, see if you don’t find yourself believing you’re talking to Kermit the Frog. Not some puppeteer — Kermit THE Frog.
The Muppets were ubiquitous in the 80s and well into the 90s. I loved them. How could you not? Aside from some religious nuts who believe that anthropomorphizing animals in a fantastic setting is of the devil (yes, they exist, and I’ve been subjected to their teachings), who doesn’t love the Muppets?
The Muppet Show happened a little before my time, and I have only in recent years become familiar with some of the original sketches and musical classics through DVDs and YouTube, but I grew up watching Muppet movies, from the original 1979 Muppet Movie to The Great Muppet Caper to the classic holiday special A Muppet Family Christmas to Disney-MGM Studios’ brilliant Muppet*Vision 3D attraction to 1999′s Muppets from Space. I still love Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller both hold special places in my memories. And I was fully on board when Muppets Tonight aired as part of ABC’s TGIF lineup in 1996 — it was one of those shows I would look forward to during school on Fridays.
Since the less-than-stellar (no pun intended) Muppets from Space, though, it really is no big surprise that the Muppets have been relegated over the past decade to mediocre TV specials and straight-to-video fare. That is why, as I believe many Muppet lovers were, I was both thrilled and trepidacious when I heard, shortly after seeing the surprisingly good Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that writer/star Jason Segel was working on a new Muppet movie. My feelings on the project went up and down over the past three years as I awaited this first theatrical Muppet movie in over a decade. I started to get excited about it once Segel, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the others started making the rounds on talk and variety shows. (Yes, it was Kermit and Piggy talking to Jimmy Fallon, not Steve Whitmire or Eric Jacobson.)
When I went into the theater, I had a massive grin and felt giddy as a little boy. When I came out, I had mixed emotions and may need to see it a second time to really know how I feel about the whole thing. I do have one burning question for Segel and company, though, one that kind of sticks in my craw… but I’ll get back to that, because I am not here to talk at length about The Muppets. (If you do long for extended discourse on this highly enjoyable new film, though, it is featured on our Buried Cinema podcast and podcast minisode this week!)
Far and away my favorite Muppet film now is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is not just a brilliant Muppet movie full of amazing practical and digital effects but also a great adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel; but as a little boy in the 1980s, my favorite was The Muppets Take Manhattan. The Muppets Take Manhattan is the only true Muppet movie directed by Frank Oz (though he also directed The Dark Crystal). Frank Oz may be second only to Jim Henson himself in the Muppet world — not only did he create and perform Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, but he is also the original talent behind Animal and Sam Eagle; Sesame Street‘s Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert; and the Master Jedi himself, Yoda.
I got a DVD copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan out of a cereal box. (I think it was the same cereal that gave me a DVD episode of Inspector Gadget, though I don’t remember which cereal it was.) I’ve had it sitting in my collection for years without sitting down to watch it. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, though having seen it a thousand times as a kid, I remembered a lot. But after watching The Muppets, a film steeped in Muppet history that references the 1984 classic in several wonderful ways, I knew it was time to pull this old favorite out of the toy chest. Here are some of my thoughts while watching The Muppets Take Manhattan for the first time since probably the mid-90s:
“It’s all about a couple of kids who come to New York to get married, and it has a great opening number, it goes like this!”
First of all, the revelation that my DVD copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan doubles as a free trial for America Online tells me that I have, indeed, had this movie in my collection for far too long without watching it. Second, I had no recollection that this film begins with Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf, Scooter, Gonzo, Camilla, and Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem putting on a senior variety show called Manhattan Melodies upon graduating college. They’re such a big hit with their fellow seniors in the audience that they get the idea in their heads that they could make it on Broadway. So they all pack up and head for the Big Apple.
Something that struck me about the Muppets as they were arriving in New York City is that in this world, nobody looks twice at a bunch of anthropomorphic dogs and bears and chickens and things walking around, wearing ties, talking and singing and dancing. It’s one of the charms of the Muppets that they are always seen as social abnormalities, but not so abnormal as to warrant pointing and staring in an everyday setting. (Also, I was certain that the lady walking through the background at 6:17 was a pre-Blood Simple Frances McDormand, but I can find no proof of this on the web, not even on McDormand’s Muppet Wiki page.)
Kermit and the gang suffer a string of failed pitches, starting with Martin Price (a cameo by Dabney Coleman), who is arrested mid-meeting as a con man when an old woman shows up with — and this is funny — two uniformed police officers, and accuses him of stealing her life savings. (This scene also features a pre-Star Trek Gates “Dr. Beverly Crusher” McFadden. Could this be called a “retro-cameo”?) The rest of the gang decides, in order to stop being such a burden on Kermit all the time, to leave New York and go their separate ways.
This scene takes place in a diner where another most beloved Muppet is working, and this leads me to my big question for Jason Segel and the Walt Disney Company: What happened to Rizzo? The rats get some background screen time in The Muppets, and I’ve read that Rizzo himself is in there somewhere (though I didn’t see him, and I was looking); but at this point, Rizzo is one of those characters who should always have a featured role just like Fozzie or Gonzo or Rowlf — or at the very least, a memorable speaking role, like Pepe the King Prawn gets as Miss Piggy’s temporary dance partner. (Another favorite who doesn’t seem to be getting the love this year is Bean Bunny. I didn’t notice if he was in the movie or not either. What gives, fellas?)
Speaking of rats: Rizzo, Chester, Yolanda, Masterson, and Tatooey get an interesting little scene created by Jim Henson called the “Rat Scat,” in which they do a musical number using things lying around the kitchen. This scene pre-dates the dance troupe Stomp by a few years, but does not pre-date its origins in the U.K. It makes me wonder if Henson had seen a performance by the group in its early years and been inspired. Or, maybe he was just a guy who liked to turn his pots and pans into a percussion section. After all, he did become a worldwide cultural phenomenon with some ping-pong balls and the fabric from an old turquoise coat. Henson was a man of brilliant simplicity.
“Songs AND dances? That might be interesting…”
One of the things I’ve remembered most clearly over the years is the music. This movie has many wonderful, memorable songs, including “Right Where I Belong,” “Saying Goodbye,” “I’m Gonna Always Love You,” “Somebody’s Getting Married,” “He’ll Make Me Happy,” and the song that always make me feel simultaneously upbeat and introspectively nostalgic, “Together Again” (which made a brief welcome appearance in The Muppets). It also has one altogether forgettable song called “You Can’t Take No for an Answer,” sung by Dr. Teeth over the failed-pitch montage. It just has that awful early-80s style (though it sounds vaguely similar to the Peter Björn & John song “Second Chance”). I didn’t remember this song or the accompanying montage at all from the hundreds of childhood viewings. Frankly, I’m a little surprised I’m remembering it right now.
(By the way, I would be derelict in my duties as a Muppet evangelist if I did not bring to your attention that, as I was researching the history of Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, I discovered that this existed.)
Another sequence that is notable for a variety of reasons is when Kermit and his human friend Jenny (Juliana Donald) are jogging through Central Park and being spied on by Miss Piggy, and Piggy has her purse stolen. The last time I saw this film, I must have been just old enough to recognize certain filmmaking techniques, because I remember that the sequence in which Miss Piggy is chasing her purse-snatcher on roller skates creeped me out. The reason is that in the wide shots with Piggy in pursuit the background, it’s obvious that she is a full-size human in full Piggy dress. I guess I find the idea of having an angry adult human dressed as Miss Piggy on roller skates chasing me to be fairly terrifying, though I’m willing to bet money it wouldn’t be the strangest thing Central Park has ever seen.
The Central Park scene features an appearance by two more of my personal favorites in the Muppet world, uppity hecklers Statler and Waldorf. In one of their greatest moments ever, they see “a frog and a pig… in love” and start barking and cat-calling. Finally, the tail end of the Central Park scene introduces, for the first time ever, the concept of the Muppet Babies, as Piggy has a fantasy song sequence featuring herself, Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie, Scooter, and Rowlf as babies in a nursery together. (Sadly, no Baby Animal yet to say Goooo bye-bye!… but we do get a foreshadowing even of that early on in the film when everyone decides to part ways.)
The Muppets Take Manhattan is, as any good Muppet movie will be, full of cameos, including the aforementioned Dabney Coleman; director John Landis; Brooke Shields; Elliott Gould; Joan Rivers in a fun scene with Miss Piggy in which they apply copious amounts of cosmetics; Gregory Hines, who has a great scene trying to mediate an argument between Kermit and Piggy in Central Park; Liza Minnelli in the fantastic “whispering campaign” scene in an upscale restaurant; James Coco as a dog owner who puts Rowlf through the most humiliating moment of his life; Art Carney as the Broadway producer who finally agrees to finance the Muppets’ play; and even Ed Koch, who was mayor of New York City for most of the 80s. And I suppose this is not really a cameo, but Pete (Jenny’s father and the owner of Pete’s diner, and a fine mangler of the English language) is played by Louis Zorich, the Constable from the 1971 film classic Fiddler on the Roof.
“Wait a minute! Wait just a second! You mean just say what the product DOES? Why, no one’s ever tried that!”
There’s a lot of weak plotting going on here, most glaringly how characters always seem to know where to find other characters at any given moment except for the one time it’s important that they don’t for the sake of dramatic tension (and because the movie suffers from a little IITS), and that is when Kermit, having just gotten a deal to have his play produced on Broadway, runs into traffic, gets hit by a car, forgets who he his, and disappears into the concrete jungle with only two weeks till curtains up. During this time, nobody at the hospital calls the authorities about an amnesiac John Doe (they just give him clothes — since he was naked when they found him — and release him back into the wilds of Manhattan), nor do any of Kermit’s friends involve the authorities in their search for him.
This, of course, is the 30 years of wisdom in me talking. The kid in me could care less. But I try to always hold every narrative film to the same standard of quality of story and characters. Even though the plot is seriously lacking, however, I still care about the story, and that’s mostly because I care about the characters. The Muppets have always been very rich in character, and that allows me to overlook, or at least forgive, some weak plotting.
“That’s it! That’s what’s been missing from the show! That’s what we need! MORE frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and… and whatever!”
And the characters get fun individual subplots too, after they all go their separate ways:
Scooter gets a job in Cleveland tearing tickets at a B-movie house, where he runs into the Swedish Chef, who has a great bit reveling in the wonders of wearing 3D glasses, and Lew Zealand, who throws his signature boomerang fish during a showing of Attack of the Killer Fish 3D;
Fozzie tries to go into hibernation with a bunch of other bears but suffers from insomnia and is surprised to find that the cave is “co-ed” when a bear named Beth suggests snuggling;
Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem get a gig as an Oompah band at a community hall in a town outside Pittsburgh;
Gonzo becomes a daredevil on the Lake Michigan, and as you’d expect, his death-defying feats don’t go so well — but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Camilla and the chickens do their rendition of Tony Bennett singing the “William Tell Overture”;
and finally, in perhaps my favorite bit, Rowlf ends up in a degrading position managing a dog kennel in Delaware.
Scenes like these and many others are what make the Muppets the classics that they are, and what make The Muppets Take Manhattan a comedy classic despite its ultimately insignificant shortcomings. And all these new dogs and bears and chickens and things not only get to come back to Manhattan and appear in the climactic Broadway show, but they enrich the entire Muppet universe from that point on. Not that the Muppets were lacking up till that point, but these extras are just the ingredient needed for future Muppet productions.
One thing that leaves me perplexed at the end, though, is this: Are we to assume that Kermit and Piggy actually do get married at the end? If so, poor Kermit was bamboozled into it by a characteristically Machiavellian Miss Piggy. It is a great climactic scene though, featuring cameos by all your other favorite Muppets of the Muppet Show era as well as the gang from Sesame Street.
If I can leave you with one final thought, one pearl of wisdom, one timeless idiom that could potentially change your life, it is this (make sure your sound is turned way up though):
Yes, peoples is peoples. Thank you, Pete.
Tom was once a mere temp worker in a shady laboratory until he was kidnapped by mad scientists and imprisoned on a satellite in outer space where he was forced to watch bad movies with a couple of sarcastic sentient robots. He escaped over a decade ago, yet still he sits alone in a darkened room watching bad movies, whispering wisecracks into the dark. His favorite films include City Lights, Casablanca, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Amélie, Stagecoach, and the Toy Story trilogy. He edits the Rant Pad and the Buried Cinema podcast.