- Director: Frank Oz
- Writers: Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, and Frank Oz
- Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Frank Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Juliana Donald, Ronny Price, and Louis Zorich
- Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Song Score)
- Where to Watch: Stream with ads on Tubi, Stream with subscription on Showtime app, Buy or rent with Amazon Video or YouTube
The Muppets are like my friends. I grew up with them, watching their movies over and over. The same way that in a different time people grew up with the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. The plot of The Muppets Take Manhattan is purposely extremely old fashioned, straight out of the very early musicals of the early 30s, at the beginning of the sound era. Yet I saw it before all of its influences, so now when I see them, it’s the Muppets I’m thinking of. A year or two ago I saw this particular movie for the first time in at least a decade, and I realized that as a kid I’d missed some bits. For one thing, I think Kermit should probably dumped Piggy to go off with Jenny (Juliana Donald), who is just supportive and not constantly nagging him. This is the only bit of Muppet-related media I can recall that gives Piggy a genuine romantic rival.
The Muppets Take Manhattan was the third post-Muppet Show movie put together by Jim Henson and company, after The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper. While the latter of these may still be my favorite of all the Muppet movies, there’s a case to be made that The Muppets Take Manhattan is the most off the wall. There are probably fewer jokes-per-minute, but the jokes that are there are pretty darn weird. Consider the bit where Piggy spies on Kermit and Jenny, while being sexually harassed by New York Construction workers. As a little kid, I’m not sure if I fully understood any of this, but I remembered it. This scene is how I learned about this trope about construction workers. Later in the movie, Gregory Hines has a cameo where he unwittingly gets into the middle of a fight between Kermit and Piggy that just ends in wordless screaming:
In the next bit, by the way, Piggy has a completely nonsequitur daydream that introduced the Muppet Babies for the first time. Their animated TV series debuted later that year. As you likely know, the Muppets were created by Jim Henson, who decided that if puppets were going to be successful in TV and movies they should be made of cloth instead of wood or metal, like they usually had been previously. He had this revelation while going to the University of Maryland, where there is now a statue of Kermit the Frog on campus. His muppets were hired for commercials, which were parlayed into The Muppet Show tv series, which then led to the movies. Meanwhile, Henson expanded into Sesame Street, educational TV for smaller kids, and The Dark Crystal, a fantasy movie aimed at an older audience. Having directed The Great Muppet Caper and The Dark Crystal back to back, he decided to take a step back for the third Muppet movie, allowing perhaps his most important collaborator, Frank Oz (the voice of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, among others), to direct his first movie.
Oz had recently reached a new audience as the voice of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but he had always wanted to direct. He went on to a long career that moved on to Little Shop of Horrors and eventually to full-on regular human movies, everything from Steve Martin comedies to Robert De Niro crime movies to the movie version of The Indian in the Cupboard. He obtained the usual slate of cameos from Muppet movies for his debut, including his good friend the director John Landis, in all of whose movies Oz generally cameos. Other cameos include Liza Minelli (as herself), Joan Rivers, Art Carney, Dabney Coleman (in a bizarre early sequence where he holds Gonzo and Camilla hostage while trying to escape from the police), New York Mayor Ed Koch, Elliott Gould, and Brooke Shields, who gets to get hit on by a rat (“what are your feelings about interspecies dating?”).
As a little kid, I noticed none of these. It was Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, et al., who were the stars. The Swedish Chef works at a movie theater and throws popcorn in his own face, crowing “3-D!” “That’s not how 3-D works,” comments the perpetually exasperated Scooter. Meanwhile, Fozzie tries to hibernate in a cave with wild bears, only to find a lady bear, “Beth,” snuggling up to him. “Oh, I didn’t know this was a co-ed cave.” All over my head. So what DID I like? I sometimes have trouble remembering. I definitely liked the extremely uptight marketing frogs Kermit falls in with after getting amnesia (don’t ask), Bill, Gill, and Jill, who are astonished when Kermit comes up with the slogan, “Ocean Breeze Soap, it gets you clean.” I also recall enjoying the extended final musical number, supposedly the show the gang is presenting on Broadway, ending in Kermit and Piggy’s wedding. Having characters from Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock show up in the background was the closest six-year-old me got to an Avengers-style “ultimate crossover.”
I really do think it’s astonishing that the movie worked for me at different times in my life for entirely different reasons, I honestly don’t know you do that. It has an even higher level of difficulty when you stop and consider that, in fact, this is a musical without any particularly memorable songs. While other Muppet movies over the decades have included “The Rainbow Connection” and “Muppet or Man,” but there aren’t really any breakout hits here. It’s more about raw charm and the ability to present that basic 1930s story, pretty much straight out of the Busby Berkeley era, to both a six-year-old and a 36-year-old. And that’s not nothing.