“Hey, I tell you what is. Big city, hmm? Live, work, huh? But not city only. Only peoples. Peoples is peoples. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is peoples, is dancing, is music, is potatoes. So, peoples is peoples.”
This review is part of the 1984-a-thon, a collaborative multi-blog effort to review one of the best years of film: 1984.
Let’s begin by saying that it’s impossible to top The Muppet Movie. There just aren’t enough adjectives to do it justice. It’s one of the most enduring children’s movies of all time. Hyperbole? Not if you’ve seen it. It’s so close to perfection that the difference is negligible.
It may be impossible to top, but that doesn’t stop the machine. Indeed, there have been seven subsequent theatrical films. Some were good; some not so much. For my money, though, only The Muppets Take Manhattan comes close to being truly great.
The Muppets Take Manhattan closes out the original Muppets trilogy and marks the last feature film with Jim Henson’s direct involvement. It’s his swan song with the characters he created, and it’s the last Muppets film that should be required viewing.
Despite their enduring popularity and new films, it’s easy to forget just how big The Muppets were during the height of their popularity in the 80s. The Muppet Show ran for five seasons from 1976-1981, and The Muppet Movie came out to huge critical acclaim in 1979, which was followed soon after by The Great Muppet Caper in 1981. The Muppets Take Manhattan completed the trilogy in 1984, and then the animated Muppet Babies invaded every child’s home for eight seasons from 1984-1991.
And we haven’t even mentioned Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, or Dark Crystal, all of which preceded 1984. It’s safe to say that the 80s belonged to Jim Henson, who firmly cemented his puppets into U.S. pop culture.
I’ve been slowly introducing the Muppets to my kids, who—by and large—love them. They thoroughly enjoyed The Muppet Movie, and they tolerated The Great Muppet Caper. But it wasn’t until I sat down to rewatch The Muppets Take Manhattan for this review that they saw it for the first time.
In most respects, their feelings mirror my own. I’m not going to do a recap of the film’s plot, since—let’s be honest—you’ve already seen it.
We begin with a musical number. It’s no Rainbow Connection (What is?), but Together Again is one of the better songs from the original trilogy. This number (and the following scene) also establishes the basic premise of this film: a Muppety take on the hoary down-on-their-luck, gonna-make-it-in-New York tale.
“I’m allergic to amphibians singing.”
What I love about the original trilogy is that they’re not direct sequels of each other. Each casts the gang in new roles and then sets them loose.
This is an 80s film through and through. And some parts age better than others. In typical Muppets fashion, there are numerous cameos throughout. Almost all of them flew right over my kids’ heads. Joan Rivers, Brooke Shields, Liza Minnelli, Art Carney, Dabney Coleman, Gregory Hines, Ed Koch…for the most part, these are no longer household names, especially among the elementary school lot.
Though, let’s be fair here. Thirty years from now, how many kids will still recognize Zach Galifinakis, Ken Jeong, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, Chloe Grace Moretz, or (sigh) even Lady Gaga—all of whom had cameos in the most recent Disney Muppets films.
Part of the reason The Great Muppet Caper wasn’t a hit with my kids is because it relies too heavily on the human characters and their part in the caper. I’m lookin’ at you Charles Grodin.
There are touches of this in Manhattan, but by and large we focus squarely on the Muppets. Julia Donald delivers a wonderful girl-next-door Jenny, but thankfully most of her scenes take place in Pete’s Diner—where Rizzo the Rat steals every scene.
“You gave Jenny the huggies?”
Speaking of Rizzo: one of the rats he brings in to work at the diner is named Tatooey. He’s a rat. Rat Tatooey. Ratatouille. Did I just blow your mind?
Yes, years before Pixar, Jim Henson gave us a restaurant kitchen full of rats…and one of the most technically complex scenes of puppetry captured on film. Take a couple minutes to marvel:
In 2014, it’s all too easy to forget just how visionary and groundbreaking Jim Henson truly was. The original Muppets trilogy is rife with his technical wizardry and contains just enough movie magic to make the films not simply extraordinary but priceless American treasures.
One of the most memorable scenes comes about midway. Kermit just receives the good news that their musical will be produced on Broadway, and he’s almost immediately hit by a taxi crossing the street, which causes complete amnesia. The movie takes a left turn, and we’re suddenly in a Korean drama. (Am I the only one who gets that reference?)
Why is this so memorable? Because this scene was seared into my brain for years. It’s horrifying. Just look at this…
You’re welcome. Now you won’t be able to sleep either.
- The Muppet Babies sequence is worth the price of admission alone. It predates the cartoon by only two months.
- Saying Goodbye is one of the more touching songs the Muppets have recorded. It’s not a complete heartbreaker like Gonzo’s I’m Going to Go Back There Someday, but you have to be made of stone to not get a little teary at the gang all, well, saying goodbye.
- Gates McFadden (future Dr. Beverly Crusher) makes her film debut as a secretary toward the beginning of the film.
- The casts of Sesame Street (who make cameos in all three original Muppets films) and The Muppet Show pop up in the final wedding scene.
My only complaint? The ending is weak. The movie ends with the premiere of the gang’s Manhattan Melodies, which really turns out to be an elaborate ruse whereby Miss Piggy tricks Kermit into marrying her. The film basically ends with “I do.” It feels like a gimmick ending, and we’re not given a true resolution to the story that propelled the previous 92 minutes.
Verdict? If The Muppet Movie is an A+, this is a solid A. It surpasses The Great Muppet Caper on all counts and holds up surprisingly well. Despite a few dated references and missed cameos, the jokes still work, the gags are still funny, and the film still feels fresh.
The little Roarbots give it all thumbs up.
The Muppets Take Manhattan is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and is also streaming on Netflix.