MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, the third Muppet film, is an anomaly. While it establishes a pattern that continued in Muppet cinema for the following three films, it is quite a departure from the first two Muppet endeavors.
Unlike the title would have you believe, the Muppets initially struggle to conquer the Big Apple. They head to the city just after college graduation with high hopes to make it on Broadway only to learn that finding a producer who believes in them, and is willing to fund their musical, is not easy. When Kermit’s frustration gets the better of him, the group splits up and promises to come back to New York as soon as Kermit gets their musical produced on Broadway. While Kermit remains in the city, the rest of the group each goes their separate ways, thus initially failing to “take Manhattan.” (Miss Piggy stays close to spy on Kermit and gets a cosmetics counter job with Joan Rivers.) As luck would have it, Kermit does eventually get a producer on-board for their show, but after getting hit by a car in a crosswalk he gets amnesia and does not know who he is. Moments before the show is to start on Broadway, Kermit is located, has some sense knocked into him by Piggy, and then the Muppets’ entire musical introduction to the Great White Way goes off without a hitch. All of this seems like typical material for the Muppets, but the delivery of the plot is the big difference here.
The most notable change in MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN is a well-established fourth wall. Both the preceding Muppet films and “The Muppet Show” regularly played with the audience, directly addressing them for jokes and for plot momentum. The television program “The Muppet Show” was about the making of a variety show. And both THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER and THE MUPPET MOVIE were films about making a film, rather than just straight plot. In MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, however, the audience is not brought into the world of the Muppets. Though the plot still revolves around creating a piece for performance—their Broadway musical—the audience is distanced from the Muppets by not getting brought into their world. Here we do not get asides from Kermit, or comments from Fozzie about his jokes falling flat, or cheap shots from Piggy about lackluster musical numbers. This film begins the Muppet’s turn toward more straightforward narrative film projects.
Despite the change, this departure is not alienating for the audience. After all, we still get to see them backstage at their Broadway debut. The film also makes up for the possible alienation by showing us two things that we love to see, Muppets trying to make it in the real world and Muppet reunions.
One of the most fun parts of THE MUPPET MOVIE is seeing the gang before they became a gang. It is great to see Miss Piggy entering mid-west beauty pageants, Fozzie performing his vaudeville act on stage, Kermit in the swamp, and the Electric Mayhem in their band practice space. MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN increases the satisfactions of seeing Muppets interact with humans by having most of them get jobs. Rowlf finds himself running a kennel, Scooter and the Swedish Chef work at a cinema, and Fozzie attempts to hibernate in their time apart. The appeal goes beyond the “Movie stars—they are just like us!” celebrity coverage in tabloids because the Muppets are more than just movie stars; they are Muppets.
Consider Rowlf’s position at the kennel. Not only is he a Muppet, but he is a Muppet dog. By obtaining a job as a dog caregiver he is defying those two levels of identification and imitating a third, a working human adult. The absurdity of a non-human Muppet obtaining a career, let alone a dog overseeing fellow dogs, is enough to make children in the audience laugh and the adults at least chortle.
After the Muppets have scattered to the various corners of the earth, they need to be brought back to Manhattan for their big stage debut. Bringing the Muppets together worked in THE MUPPET MOVIE, and again later in 2011’s THE MUPPETS, because we love to see the whole group back together. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing all of the frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and creatures come together and express appreciation for each other and each of their unique talents. Being apart from one another allows them the opportunity to reunite and reclaim their status as a unified team. MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN gives this reunion an extra force by reconvening the Muppets while Kermit is missing, just days before their musical opens. The group initially broke apart because they were putting too much of a strain on Kermit. All of them were looking to him for answers, and he did not have any. To have the group get back together, and get their entire Broadway show up and nearly running, without putting pressure on Kermit, shows that they can accomplish anything. Though the Muppets know that the show cannot be performed without Kermit, they are able to do the heavy lifting on their own.
Sadly, this was the last Muppet film produced before we lost Jim Henson suddenly in 1990. Certain purists scoff at any films made after his passing. While I can see that argument, the later films do, for the most part, stay true to the themes of friendship, loyalty, fun, and celebrity cameos. Rather than focusing on the negative of losing him far too soon, I prefer to look back at the films and television shows he was involved with and marvel at the fact that a man once dreamed such a fun world could exist. And isn’t that escapism what Henson would have wanted us to indulge in?