Muppet Mayhem (Part 3): The Muppets Take Manhattan

The year is 1984 and the Jim Henson Company is starting to go in some interesting directions. What they had always been known for, the Muppets, have started to wane in popularity a little bit, and as such, Jim Henson and his puppeteers have started to use their technical mastery of puppets to go to new and interesting places. But if they want to move away from the Muppets, why not leave them on a high note?

Kermit, Ms. Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Camilla, Scooter, and the Electric Mayhem all go to a college in upstate New York where they are all about to graduate. They wrote a musical, Manhattan Melodies, that ends up being a colossal hit at the school and decide to take the act to New York City in order to turn it into a full-on Broadway hit. Nothing quite works out well for them, and after a constant stream of rejections, they decide to split up and go on with the rest of their lives. All of them head off to different parts of the country, but Kermit stays in New York and starts working at a diner with his new friends Pete and Jenny, all while re-tooling the script of Manhattan Melodies in order to make it easier to sell. The Muppets Take Manhattan is honestly the first Muppet movie to actually feel like a movie rather than a collection of skits surrounded by story elements. The Great Muppet Caper started to move in that direction, but it never quite removed the variety show element.

The movie relies more on your standard comedic writing and timing rather than the running jokes or meta show business humour. Due to this and the more serious storyline makes the Muppets Take Manhattan feel like a very, very different movie than it’s predecessors. This is the first Muppet Movie to be directed by Frank Oz and it really shows. Oz and Henson were fresh off of their experimental and suffocatingly dark feature, the Dark Crystal, and both were wanting to move on to new and even more radical and innovative things with that first taste of something not relating to Muppets. In fact, after the release of this movie in 1984, the Muppets wouldn’t be seen again until 1987 and 1990 after that, both of which ended up being TV specials rather than movies, the next one of those wouldn’t occur until the Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992.

The Muppets Take Manhattan is the first Muppet movie to mix comedy with some serious drama. A large portion of it is surprisingly bleak with them barely living out of lockers in a bus terminal, all of them are unemployed and can’t afford food, and no one is intent on producing their musical. All of this culminates with a scene where all of them are completely broken from the constant stream of rejection and go their separate ways. This is honestly one of the saddest things that anyone who grew up watching the Muppets could ever see, the idea that these characters that we have always seen together all of a sudden going their separate ways to work menial jobs in order to get enough money to survive is completely heartbreaking. You know what, remove the Muppets from the equation and that is still horribly depressing! Mother of god, the Muppets Take Manhattan is preparing children for the crushing reality of life! It’s so brilliantly devious!

The score by Ralph Burns is pretty spectacular, but the songs really stand out and are much more important, as they should in a movie about Broadway. “Together Again” is a wonderfully simple song that is deceptively catchy, which is probably why it was included in the Muppet*Vision 3D area background music. “Saying Goodbye” is completely sad and never fails to make my eyes water up and “I’m Gonna Always Love You” is unbelievably saccharine sweet but somehow charming. Any of the songs related to Manhattan Melodies are wonderful, and honestly, I would love to see a full version of this show put on (with all Muppet performers, of course).

It should also be noted that the Muppets Take Manhattan introduced the world to the idea of the Muppet Babies in one of the cutest segments in a movie ever, “I’m Gonna Always Love You”, and this was the first time that Rizzo the Rat was in a major role in anything related to the Muppets.

A continuing trend in the Muppet movies is the pushing of puppetry to more involved and complicated places. The big jump in the Muppets Take Manhattan is the use of the rat puppets. Rizzo and the other Muppet rats are such small puppets that they are operated solely by the use of wires and strings inside the body in order to make their mouths move, but the step forward is that these characters have a larger number of full body shots and they do more complex things like skating on butter on top of a gril or drumming on pots and pans while hanging in the air on a ladle.

The Muppets Take Manhattan is one of the best Muppet movies for a reason. It has a great story, fantastic and catchy music, and actually reaches some real level of human drama with the idea that dreams do not necessarily come true exactly as planned. Unfortunately, the next installment of Muppet Mayhem is going to deal with some real human tragedy (but there will be comedy as well to balance it out).

 

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