The Bottom Line
When Kermit (Jim Henson), Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), Fozzy (Oz) and the rest of the gang learn that making it big on Broadway isn't as easy as they think, they go their separate ways. A small-time producer comes to the rescue, but Kermit's bout with amnesia threatens to railroad the group's reunion. Also, do I hear wedding bells?
The Rest of the Story
The 1984 third installment in the Muppets movie series opens to The Muppets performing their wildly successful variety show on graduation day at "Muppet University" (actually Vassar College.) Bolstered by their human friends' kind words, the gang sets off for The Big Apple to turn their show into a Broadway success. There they run into the harsh reality of slammed doors, sleazy producers (Dabney Coleman, your mustache is used-car salesman seedy), and urban decay. Eventually the till runs dry, and the group goes their separate ways, with Kermit remaining behind to work as a waiter in a quaint but dingy New York City cafe (whose unapologetic staffing of rats goes more or less unquestioned by the restaurant patrons.)
While Kermit begins growing closer to another worker in the cafe (the cute but feckless Juli Donald), Miss Piggy has remained behind to clandestinely watch her little green hunk - and she is not pleased. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang has shifted to disparate parts of the country, to varying degrees of success:
Kermit tries to keep the dream alive, and finally tracks down a producer willing to front the group's show. He is so excited he forgets traffic rule #1, gets whacked by a car, and promptly gets amnesia (as determined by a ditzy, kittenish Linda Lavin in a white coat - hellooooo, nurse!) Convinced by some other frogs that he is in fact a smart corporate flunkie named "Phillip Phil", Kermit goes missing just as the gang receives the news of their impending show.
Will the gang find Kermit and bring him to his senses? Will the show go on without its amphibian star? And hey, I thought Gonzo was supposed to play the minister ...
The primary difference between The Muppets Take Manhattan and both "The Muppet Show" and the earlier Muppet movies in that it is decidedly more self-aware of the Muppets' success throughout the world. It also takes a much stronger tack towards storylines which involve the Muppets as actual characters who exist in continuity outside of the movie, a trend which helped the Muppets escape their madcap sketch comedy roots in later projects. (When after resuscitating Camilla the Chicken, Gonzo announces, "I think we're engaged," the nostalgic viewer sees infinitely more value in the 20 year running gag that has followed that line ever since.)
Bolstered by the strength of several catchy musical numbers (the most famous of which is the "I Will Always Love You" dream sequence that spawned the "Muppet Babies" televison cartoon), the movie's plot is more episodic than chronological, and the "where are they now?" vignettes of the Muppets serve as a great excuse for sketch comedy fodder wrapped within the bigger picture. Storywise, the plot is good, but essentially a retread of The Muppet Movie, though there are enough changes in premise and execution to let the movie stand on its own.
Perhaps the biggest character in the film has no lines at all: the city of Manhattan itself - or more specifically, the Manhattan of 1984. A curious mix of stereotypes, brownstone WASP living, the early trappings of the cult of celebrity, and A Star is Born "bright lights" mentality, the Manhattan that is eventually taken over by the Muppets is almost unrecognizable compared to the shinier, cleaner, and even more self-caricaturing version of today. Here, the city seems not only alive, but positively small and manageable at some points - a necessity to sell such an impossible idea as producing a Broadway hit overnight (and one equally fruitful in the Muppets' revision of Hollywood for The Muppet Movie.)
Of course, no Muppets movie would be complete without several star cameos, and Muppets Take Manhattan is no exception, featuring a plethora of 80s who's whos, though curiously a disproportionate number of them have faded away in recent years. Be sure to catch the early signs of psychosis in a giggly Joan Rivers, the amazingly smarmy James Coco as a demanding dog owner, and the patronizingly blank stare of John Landis as a Broadway executive.
At the heart of Muppets Take Manhattan (and indeed, every Muppets movie) lies the story of Jim Henson himself: the small-town dreamer who succeeds in spite of not only overwhelming odds, but outright condescension from Those In Charge. Henson spent his whole life fighting the powers that be, defying naysayers at every turn. That the movie serves so faithfully as both an homage to Henson's own beliefs and a loving tribute to the biggest little island in the world (while still embracing the madcap Muppets ethos) is a credit to the beloved puppeteer's own dreams.
Trivia: Both Jim Henson and Frank Oz make actual on-camera appearances in the movie. Jim is the horse carriage driver for Kermit and Jenny's romantic jaunt through Central Park, and Frank shows up in the board room for the Ocean Breeze Soap Company. And the college student at the beginning of the film who asks Kermit what the gang plans to do next is Steve Whitmire, voice of Rizzo the Rat (and more recently Kermit since Jim Henson's death.)
Star Trek reference: See if you can spot Gates McFadden (aka Dr. Beverly Crusher) in a small but frantically funny role.
My Rating: 8 out of 10. Despite the tacky 80s sheen, a perfect 10 for the kiddos, with enough jokes and broad humor for parents to love. Add on some catchy tunes and a happy ending, and you've got a winner.
Jeff Moss (songs)
Jim Henson .... Kermit the Frog/Rowlf/Dr. Teeth/Waldorf/Swedish Chef/Ernie
Frank Oz .... Miss Piggy/Fozzie/Animal/Sam the Eagle/Bert/Cookie Monster
Dave Goelz .... The Great Gonzo/Zoot/Chester Rat/Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/Beauregard
Jerry Nelson .... Camilla/Lew Zealand/Floyd/Crazy Harry
Steve Whitmire .... Rizzo the Rat/Gill the Frog/Baby Kermit
Richard Hunt .... Scooter/Janice/Statler/Beaker
Juli Donald .... Jenny
Lonny Price .... Ronnie Crawford
Louis Zorich .... Pete
Art Carney .... Bernard Crawford
James Coco .... Mr. Skeffington
Dabney Coleman .... Martin Price
Gregory Hines .... Roller skater
Linda Lavin .... Kermit's doctor
Joan Rivers .... Perfume saleswoman
Elliott Gould .... Cop in Pete's
Liza Minnelli .... Herself
Brooke Shields .... Customer in Pete's
Edward I. Koch .... Himself (as The Honorable Edward I. Koch)
John Landis .... Leonard Winesop