The Muppets are akin to Charlie Brown and the characters from Peanuts in two salient ways. For one, they seem strangely immune to commercial overexposure; no matter how large the mega-corporation that owns them, or how many ancillary properties and products they have their likenesses pasted on, the characters themselves always seem to emerge fresh, honest, and sincere. For another, there has always been an air of melancholy hanging underneath both of them. Peanuts is sweet and fun and certainly celebrates the purity of childhood, but is also largely about how dour life can be, and how defeated a human being can feel. The Muppets, similarly, seem to live a life of constant struggle. In only one of the Muppet feature films (that would be the 2011 film) is Kermit and his beloved troupe well off from the git-go. In all the others, the Muppets are impoverished, often homeless, overwhelmed by their Vaudeville show, and rarely are they admired or famous.
This Muppet melancholy is at its strongest in Frank Oz’ 1984 entry The Muppets Take Manhattan, playing as our kiddie matinee on Saturday and Sunday, September 9th and 10th. The Muppets Take Manhattan presents the Muppet troupe as recent college graduates who move to the Big Apple in order to realize their dreams of opening a musical, Manhattan Melodies, on Broadway. They all attended the same small-town performing arts school, and they all have stars in their eyes. This stands in contrast to the previous Muppet iterations which depicted the troupe as employed professionals, presumably in their mid-to-late-30s, already running a show and trying to make ends meet.
In retconning the Muppets in such a fashion – essentially throwing canon to the wind – the filmmakers allowed us to see all of them in a purer light. Here is a collection of sweet, funny animal characters, already known for their gentleness and optimism, back when they were also idealistic. In the early scenes of the film, the Muppets are breathlessly hopeful, excited to move into the world. Like most college grads, they feel locked and loaded and ready to take on the world, eager to accept a just reward for their talent and sincerity.
And, just like most college grads, the Muppets find themselves slapped into the dirt by life in the big city. They don’t have enough money to live, and literally end up living in lockers. They have to make roommates of the big city rats (led by Rizzo, who seems in his element for the first time). They don’t have any connections, and their only friend is a young girl named Jenny (Juliana Donald) who ends up being a fulcrum of Miss Piggy’s jealousy. They are hungry. They are impoverished. They learn the hard way that finding your dreams in the big city is a complicated, aggressive, near-impossible affair.
Watching the Muppets learn these hard lessons can be painful. The Muppets Take Manhattan is the first time we see life actually upset their natural inner peace. It’s the first instance in Muppet history, I believe, where Kermit screams in anger. Kermit, throughout his history, has always been something of a would-be Zen master, approaching life with a great deal of calm and acceptance. Kermit gets excited – he even would panic from time to time – but he never lost his overriding sense of Christ-like tranquility. In The Muppets Take Manhattan, we see Kermit explode at his friends. When Kermit loses his cool, something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark.
It’s here that the Muppets sing a lachrymose song about saying goodbye, splitting up, and going their separate ways. Kermit stays in the big city, but only as a dishwasher, Fozzie hibernates, and the other Muppets disperse throughout the country. It’s so tragic. And then, just when things are darkest, Kermit suffers a blow to the head and loses his memory, effectively erasing his character. What The Muppets Take Manhattan seeks to do, it seems, is make a tabula rasa of the Muppets. To clean the slate. It initially presents a pure version of them, and proceeds to dismantle everything they are. By the end of the second act, Kermit is a canvas with no paint, and the Muppets are everyday schmoes who have to settle into workaday, quotidian dullness.
Luckily for us, the title of the film is The Muppets Take Manhattan, and take Manhattan they must. As such, following traditional sitcom logic, Kermit suffers another blow to the head, effectively restoring his memory. In a fit of joyful catharsis, Kermit realizes that performing is more important that success, and that they’re going to put on the best show they possibly can, true to their own vision. All of a sudden, the lights go up, the hope is restored, and the big finale goes off without a hitch. And, in true Shakespearean fashion, a wedding is bundled in for good measure.
The final musical number of The Muppets Take Manhattan is not just fun, but it’s also a great release. The melancholy falls away, and light takes its place. And we, the audience, realize what has been happening this whole time. We have been witnessing the birth of the Muppets. While the film may be canonically dubious storywise, the finale represents the now-undying, unassailable ethos of the Muppets’ optimism and tenacity coming into being. We never realized it before, but a philosophy of love and tenacity cannot arise without a crucible of suffering. The Muppets Take Manhattan is, at its core, about that suffering, and, more importantly, abut the apologies, the self-realization, and the catharsis that comes with it.
I should not, perhaps, become too preoccupied with the film’s sadder aspects. It’s actually a comedy through and through, featuring some dead-on slapstick and the usual, out-of-left-field cameo appearance (none of which I will dare spoil here, although look out for the makeup saleswoman). For the casual audience member, one may find any number of comforting yuks throughout. And, as I said, Rizzo is, as of this film, a now indelible member of the Muppet troupe. That he and Gonzo would become the literary narrators in The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island (both rather excellent) is perfectly fitting.
Indeed, the film will take a few asides to ensure that the pace stays brisk and the mood sprightly. The addition of the flashback sequence – wherein Miss Piggy imagines herself and her Muppet cohorts to be infants in the nursery – can be lifted wholesale from the film without impacting the story one bit. But the 1950s be-bop of “I’m Gonna Always Love You” is infectious, and lightens up the mood considerably. These chibi versions of the Muppets were so striking – and so easily marketable – that they were granted their own CBS animated TV series, Muppet Babies, which lasted for 107 episodes. Muppet Babies would actually be the stop-gap Muppet property that would fill the eight-year span between this film and The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992. Muppet Babies is set for a reboot next year.
Emotionally speaking, then, The Muppets Take Manhattan is the most textured and varied of the Muppet films. It’s bright and funny, but bittersweet and sometimes even sad. It slows you down, but also jokes around enough to keep you upbeat. It’s easy to love.