THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppets Take Manhattan

8 June, 2019 at 5:55 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: The Muppets Take Victorian London. Those Muppets. It’s always take, take, take…

TITLE CARD: Muppets Take Manhattan

The film opens with a helicopter shot of New York City, and if you couldn’t already recognize parts of the skyline as dated, then the lack of a gyroscopic stabilizer on the camera would thorough date this footage as from the ’70s or ’80s. Immediately, the music starts with a loose series of dooting by Kermit, kind of scat singing — harkening forward to Whitmire’s excellent caroling with Tiny Robin in 1992 — but not really deviating from the melody as much as I associate with true jazz scat. Regardless, it is a pleasant introduction to the melody of “Together Again”, the song so catchy that they used it again as the closing number to Most Wanted thirty years later.

During this charming ditty, the name of the composer to the song comes up, and I have no idea who this is. “Music and Lyrics by Jeff Moss”? Who is this workaday imposter, I pre-emptively bristle. Well, allow Wikipedia to allay my immediate suspicions, as it turns out that Mr. Moss is the writer of “Rubber Duckie” and “I Love Trash”. This explains the catchiness of both the opening number and the later appearance of “I’m Gonna Always Love You”. I probably should have been able to let the music speak for itself, but it does help to know that the compositions come from the Muppet stable, as it were. It gives some faith in the proceedings to come.

That faith, unfortunately, is largely squandered in my eyes. The film has a perfectly fine notional story, with the Muppets taking their senior college revue to New York to try and get it produced on Broadway. Perfectly ordinary Rise To Fame narrative that would be pleasant… if it wasn’t basically the plot of The Muppet Movie from five years before. But that!, I hear the movie implore, was a film about a ragtag group of strangers coming together and finding each other; their success is based on the fact that they were stronger with each other! So the stakes of this movie will be that initial failure forces them to separate, and we are anxious about getting them reunited. All of this is encapsulated by the opening, which is the finalé of Kermit’s revue! So the film starts with its eventual conclusion, and it will all be full circle!

Which is a pretty great pitch. Which the film, I say again, squanders in many ways. I realize that I’m jumping straight to the end of the film, but the ending is very much what makes me stamp out of the cinema — or, now, my living room — irritated at the logical inconsistencies in the construction of this film. A film is not its ending, but the ending is the last thing a film leaves you with, and it can absolutely sour the previous hour and a half. The fact that the film doesn’t end with “Together Again” is nuts. Everything about the musical that they stage is nuts. It defies belief, it leaves me frustrated and irritated, and it makes me want to buy Muppets Take Manhattan Burger King glasses on eBay just so that I can smash them.

So let’s establish how the film violates our faith. The helicopter pan swoops in to the fictional Danhurst College, where a sign informs us that Kermit the Frog’s senior recital of “Manhattan Melodies” is going on. We’ve already heard the doot-dee-doo version of “Together Again”, but now we see a spangly song-and-dance version of it performed by the core gang, all graduating seniors, all received with rapturous applause. An audience member shouts out that maybe the next time they’ll see them, it’ll be on Broadway. Kermit is mildly non-plussed by this, but backstage everyone else goes nuts about this astonishing new idea. Within about fifteen seconds, they’ve decided to head to the Port Authority bus terminal and find representation.

Let’s drag this to screeching halt for a second. This is Kermit’s senior recital. He wrote the show, which makes him some sort of theatre or theatrical production major. He’s at Vassar Danhurst, just two hours up I-87 from NYC. Maybe only a little longer if you drove NY State Rte. 9, which literally turns into Broadway when it reaches Manhattan. The idea that he might not have some aspirations or wouldn’t have been taught to write something that could be transported to professional production is ludicrous. The naiveté of these drama department performers is pretty outrageous. Especially when directed and produced by Oz and Henson who had cut their teeth in a variety of different commercial theatrical realms by this point. Is this supposed to be satirical? Or was it just “for kids” and therefore getting into the nitty-gritty reality of the process was considered too arduous or boring?

There’re basically two sops to the idea that this is blinkeredly absurd. The first is a throwaway line that Fozzie has when the Muppets have first moved into their lockers at the Port Authority — an ingenious idea for cheap rent that I’m sure many New Yorkers have been jealous of — where he says that he’s sure they’ll have a contract and be able to move out tomorrow. The difficulty is that it’s such a tossed-off line, that its tough to read it as indicative of awareness of potential for comic absurdity. It’s not a wholly convincing argument — after all, the line is still in the film, and just because it’s not given comic underscoring doesn’t mean the director doesn’t know its a laugh line — but potentially more convincing is it doesn’t really seem to land.

What works better is the underlying satire in Dabney Coleman’s appearance as theatrical agent Martin Price. He’s so quick to sign the Muppets, and they’re so ready to believe in their good luck, that it’s lovely that they discover that he’s doing this just to quickly get as much cash out of them as possible.

It’s a nice family friendly version of the kind of scam that is actually perpetrated on fame hungry newbies (c.f. the ARK Music Factory), undercut only by the extended sequence of Coleman’s character being savaged by Camilla and Animal — a scene that Coleman does incredibly well. He was in the heart of his heyday as silver screen scumbag, right after 9 to 5, WarGames, and Tootsie, and about to appear in Cloak and Dagger and The Man with One Red Shoe, so he was not averse to comedy or physical comedy, but this kind of slapstick is an admirable and successful stretch.

After song number two, which comes in only twelve minutes into the film, a montage about how much more time they’ve spent in the lockers than expected, we move into act two of the film: splitting up the gang. The scene in the restaurant does a lot of work here. In introduces Jenny, her father, and Rizzo the Rat (infamously named after Dustin Hoffman’s character Ratzo Rizzo in the X-rated Midnight Cowboy) to the Muppet family and to family audiences everywhere (a decision only slightly weirder than using a Swedish soundtrack to a sexploitation film as a nonsense song, as previously documented). Not that every act of a story needs to be of equal length, but moving into act two now does mathematically indicate that we’re going to have seven and a half acts in this ninety minute movie, and that’s actually kind of true. Because after this bit, with the astonishingly weepy “Saying Goodbye” bumber closing the act a scant eight minutes later, the film lurches into a sketch structure for the rest of its duration. Which, y’know, fine! It’s the Muppets! The Muppet Show was a variety show, and variety shows are just sketch comedy with musical interludes. And The Muppet Show remains great, and The Muppets should therefore be great at sketch-based structure.

Except that this film, like many sketch films, lurches all over creation in terms of tone and humorous success from this point on. And no two people can agree on which parts are good and which parts are head-clutchingly terrible.

We’ll do a sketch round-up in a minute, but I want to close out my main thesis about the overarching story concept of the ostensible plot of the film. The “We’re Gonna Make It After All!” arc of the film has Kermit introduce his three-part plan. Part 1: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em; Part 2: The Whisper Campaign; and Part 3: Um, Actually, There Is No Part Three. Somewhere in this process, but never on camera, Kermit has also been cold-mailing his script to producers, and gets a letter from Ronnie, who loves the idea of the show and wants to put it on Broadway. His disappointed father has promised he will let him do whatever he wants, once, and so we have a bunch of hapless college graduates, a wannabe costume designer-stroke-short-order waitress, and the privileged disappointment of Broadway royalty putting on a show — which, for reasons of totally random escalation, is scheduled to go up in only two weeks. This whole film, Kermit has been agonizing that the show needs something, and he really wants to meet with a producer to figure out what’s missing. When he recovers from amnesia (!!!), he realizes that the show’s just fine, it simply needed more frogs and pigs and bears and whatevers, and all of the kitchen rats and Fozzie’s hibernating relatives and the dull frogs from the Madison Avenue office instantly jump onstage and into costumes and sets and lyrics that were just waiting for them, apparently, and we have the shortest play ever before launching into the closing number. Which, again, is not “Together Again, but sung marriage vows before the happy couple is whisked up into a crescent moon and the film is over!

So the ultimate message of the story is…? Artificially breaking up your adopted family is a bad idea? Stick with your dreams, and they will end up with you being tricked into marrying your college girlfriend onstage? Except — except! — the ending doesn’t happen onstage! The “Broadway” show, which has some of the most absurd cheap cardboard cut-out sets I’ve ever seen, the kind of thing that would make the casts of the Mitchell Brook Primary School players roll their eyes in dismay, only starts off as something that is onstage and being watched. But when the song cuts from the three bears singing “Somebody’s getting married”, they turn around and go into the church doors behind them at the back of the stage. Piggy and Kermit come through those doors, which close behind them and everyone in is the church, which has four walls. The audience is now just gone. First, the play was nowhere close to anything that felt like a Broadway musical, but then it stops even being a play, because the actors all wander off-set into a real church or something. (Where Piggy has swapped out Gonzo playing a minister for an actual minister in the fifteen seconds after Kermit gets his memory back and they get in costume and get onstage.) It’s a real House of Leaves situation.

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Essentially, I find this complete abandonment of theme, storyline, and reality in favor of some sort of perceived fan-service to be idiotic and inexcusable. It’s a terrible way to end the film, and it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But, forgetting that particular structural flaw in the movie, let’s turn to my brother Pete, who loves this film. Who thinks it’s the best of the Muppet movies, and who, upon my request, rewatched it in order to provide some contrast to my bitter, bitter negativity.

Prior to his rewatch, his stated reasons for preferring were that

  • It had the best songs.
  • It had the best cameos.
  • The rats in the kitchen bit was amazing.

After his rewatch, he doubled down on each point. He is not a person who really cries at anything, but the songs in Muppets Take Manhattan got him to choke up and almost — almost! — tear up three times over the course of the film. “Together Again”, “Saying Goodbye”, and just the simple sentimentality of “You’ll Make Me Happy” at the end all got to him. And as to the second point, the Joan Rivers, Gregory Hines, and Liza Minelli scenes completely hold up, in his opinion, an he forever finds the whole “Peoples is peoples” dialogue moments to be wildly amusing. And while it might seem to be a bit of a knock to director Frank Oz that the “Rat Scat” scene gets a specific mention in the credits to being staged by Jim Henson, it’s also a point in favor of why the scene is ultimately so successful.

But mostly, he liked the fact that the film was just an unending series of bits. It took me until the Joan Rivers make-up sequence to realize what Pete had understood for a while. It never really worked for me, but it wasn’t until this rewatch that it struck me how much it felt like a Muppet Show skit that was badly in need of a laugh track to tell me how I was supposed to feel about it. Rivers, however, has the right feel as a Muppet Show guest, with the right balance of script and riffing (the whole scene could just be a logical extension of the one-line idea “lipstick on a pig”?) until the scene dissolves into riotous nonsense. Similarly, while the scenes leading up to Hines’ appearance are all very staged — born of necessity in order to have the human skater in a pig suit shot at distance, and the cutting between Piggy’s fixed, violent expression — the way he reacts to the fight between Kermit and Piggy has a very organic quality to it. In both circumstances, the camera basically just lets the actor do his or her work, and the actor is committed to the absurd reality of the situation.

Those scenes, as well as much of the rest of the film, are part of a careening series of moments. Each postcard from Maine or Delaware or or Pittsburgh or Michigan is just a set-up for a small-concept gag, as is each of Kermit’s schemes. Each moment of Piggy spying on Kermit and Jenny is just a lead-in to a simple punch-line. And then there’s the Muppet Babies song, which he may love in part because of retroactively linking it to watching the cartoon as he grew up, but mostly because it is a very catchy honky-tonk piano that accompanies weird, rounded, cutesy versions of beloved characters. Mere moments before, Piggy had said that “maybe it had been better if [they’d] never met”, which is a weird thing to stick in an argument. Perhaps it only exists for her to then, in a more tender moment, for her to then use as the basis for this fantasy of what if they’d known each other forever and always, always been in love. The scene, since it’s basically just a rock video, doesn’t actually explore that concept, but it’s the notional set-up for the diverting interlude.

Essentially, what he liked was that the film didn’t have a real storyline, aside from the fact that it was an excuse to string together a bunch of little skits. While it bothered me to no end that the script even basically acknowledged that it was more interested in the one-off vignettes of the separated characters by interrupting itself…

…Pete loved the divergent scenes and really disliked the supposed “plot” of the film. And on that, I have to agree with him. Kermit’s three-part plan was destined for failure, and the audience knew it. All of his tricks and gags and ways to try and get around the system aren’t what work in a story about Believing In Yourself, and so they are not only not going to work, but they involve Kermit having to do things that aren’t natural to his character. Which means he has to do things that make him uncomfortable, and he plays it that way. Which made me uncomfortable, and may have been my first exposure to Cringe Humor. I didn’t like it when I had to suffer through it in The Office, and I didn’t like it in 1984. The New York Times only traces “cringe comedy” back to the year 2000, but artfully states that when something wince-inducing takes place, “[t]he opposite of hilarity ensues.” I think that rather sums up Kermit’s forays into show business deception, and no amount of amusing side-bits can make up for it.

Granted, there are plenty of great side-bits. There are fabulous throw-away lines and unappreciated gags. I love Kermit’ weird pick-up line to Jenny, the penguins who want a job at the restaurant. Statler and Waldolf cat-calling Piggy and Kermit in the carriage with “Woo-woo! Lovey-dovey!” is so spot-on with my stepfather’s sense of humor, it’s difficult not to hear the line in his voice even as I watch the scene. I actually love the terrible perm/afro Kermit wears as a Hollywood disguise and I adore the whole weird thing where James Coco isn’t phased at all that Rowlf is running a kennel but is also a dog that he can tell to sit and stay as he leaves the establishment. Any one of these moments and more is eminently gif-worthy. The part that Pete and I got the most contentious about is the amnesia set-up. I contend that, if you like bits, then the most successful are Linda Lavin’s weird doctor (who basically tells Kermit at one point, “I think your case is hopeless!”, which is hilarious for a doctor to just come out and say) and the extended oddness that is Kermit’s loopy amnesia voice, his interactions with Gil, Jill, and Bill, and their Madison Avenue commentary that predates the plot of Crazy People by about six years.

Lavin, Coco, Hines, Rivers, and Minelli join our earlier mention of Dabney Coleman and a few other cameos, including Brooke Shields, a terrible Ed Koch, and Elliot Gould beating out Ray Liotta as the first celebrity to appear in two separate Muppet films in two different cameo roles to bring the film’s Celebrity Human Score to 13, in you count the founder of Sardi’s, which the credits do, so. The main six people all get star billing on the poster, above even Jenny and her father, humans that actually matter to the plot, which feels like a bit unjust.

RATING: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em; The Whisper Campaign, or Um, Actually, There Is No Part Three? Um, Actually, There Is No Part Three, which seems an appropriate score for the third movie, which tries to be meta (“It’s about a couple of kids who come to New York City to get married, and it opens with a great number…”), but doesn’t do enough with its center to make me care about its reflexive premise, and doesn’t do enough beyond badly recapping the first movie to make me think the needle has been moved.

NEXT: In this movie, the Muppets have just graduated from college. In the previous movie, The Muppets are all playing adult professionals, whether reporters or fashion interns. Danhurst College must have a really good University Without Walls program…


Related Links:
The Bowery Boys provide some great historical context for the New York personnages, locations, and situations over the course of the film.
Craig J. Clark and Joe Blevins review the film for Unloosen.
A blogger for The Alamo Drafthouse also seems to believe that Muppets Take Manhattan is the best of all the Muppet films.

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