"The Muppet Show" was structured like an old vaudeville show. It featured opening and closing production numbers on stage, with a number of short "acts" and sketches in-between. Two cynical old men sitting in an opera box even provided off-handed remarks—the equivalent of an audience response that, in the old days, sometimes included booing or chucking tomatoes. And like "The Muppet Movie" (1979), the 1984 entry from Jim Henson Productions, "The Muppets Take Manhattan," combines near stand-alone scenes with a narrative thread that's quintessentially show-biz: the dream of "making it."
This outing, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the whole Muppet gang (even the "Sesame St." Muppets make a brief cameo appearance) have put together and performed a show for their small town that's so well received that they decide to take it on the road. So they go to the Big Apple to try to sell the idea to a Broadway producer. Of course, their first stop and subsequent hang-out is the same as for any struggling actor or writer trying to make it in New York: a coffee shop and diner. At Pete's Luncheonette they get a free meal and a home base—that is, until failure after failure makes Kermit so edgy that he pulls a Cool Hand Luke on his friends ("Stop leaning on me!") and they all split for different gigs and locations. Scooter, for example, becomes an usher at a movie theater where the Swedish Chef works the popcorn and refreshment counter, Miss Piggy ends up at a department perfume counter where she ends up doing a funny bit with fellow counter worker Joan Rivers, Dr. Teeth winds up playing in a bingo parlor oompah band for old folks, Gonzo turns up in a water skiing show, and Fozzie just decides to hibernate.
That leaves Kermit regretting the remark that drove them off and feeling even more discouraged than ever—until Pete (Louis Zorich) gives him a job and Pete's daughter, Jenny (Juliana Donald), becomes his friend and gives him hope. Not even a case of accident-related frog amnesia or Jenny-inspired pig jealousy can keep Kermit from finally interesting a Broadway producer (Art Carney)—make that his son (Lonny Price)—in "Manhattan Melodies" and rounding up the gang again to pull it off.
As with "The Muppet Show," there's a gaggle of celebrity guest stars who take these little furball puppets seriously, in mostly comic bits. Besides Rivers, Dabney Coleman appears in a particularly funny sketch as a bogus producer who takes Gonzo and one of the chickens hostage when police try to arrest him. He's as convincingly hilarious as the beleaguered sexist boss he played in "9 to 5." Liza Minelli plays herself in a scene where the indignant actress foils Kermit and the rats "whisper campaign" to create a buzz for "Manhattan Melodies" at Sardi's. Gregory Hines is a Central Park roller skater whose wheels are commandeered by Miss Piggy after a purse-snatching. Elliot Gould and Brooke Shields turn up as a cop and customer at Pete's, James Coco plays a kissy-face pet pamperer, and Linda Lavin guests as a doctor who tends to Kermit. The appearances—including a cameo from then-mayor Ed Koch—are welcome, particularly because the songs this outing are surprisingly forgettable.
For a musical, "The Muppets Take Manhattan" features a remarkably ordinary collection of songs, with nothing memorable like "Rainbow Connection" to keep you humming after the end credits role. And for a show that builds to a Broadway opening, the ending is also oddly compressed and distorted. When the curtain finally rises and the gang gets what they want, a single not particularly grand production number morphs into a wedding on stage, with Miss Piggy finally tricking Kermit to the altar.
Other than those disappointments, "The Muppets Take Manhattan" is a fun romp that retains part of the structure and all of the characters, style, and tone of the original television show, with Henson bringing Kermit, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, the Swedish Chef, and Waldorf (one of the curmudgeons) to life, Frank Oz handling Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and Animal, Dave Goelz doing Gonzo, Chester Rat, Bill Frog, and Zoot, Steve Whitmire handling Rizzo the Rat and Gil Frog, Richard Hunt doing Scooter, Janice, and Statler (the other curmudgeon), and Jerry Nelson handling Camilla, Lew Zealand, and Floyd the hip musician.
"The Muppets Take Manhattan" is available singly or in a new bargain-priced 3-pack that includes the excellent "Kermit's Swamp Years" and "Muppets From Space."
Video: Fans can choose from a 1.85:1 aspect or 1.33:1 pan-and-scan option, and the picture quality is very good—sharp colors and little to no graininess.
Audio: The soundtrack is nothing special—a Dolby digital 2.0 Mono in English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese, with subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai. The sound was transferred at a lower level than many discs, but at least the voices are natural, not muffled or distorted in any other way.
Extras: Though there aren't a lot of extras, and what there is has been annoyingly broken up to make the offerings look more substantial without the benefit of a "play all" option, it's an absolute archival gem to have Henson on camera talking about the characters he brings to life and the film for which he served as executive producer—and poignant, given Henson's premature death by pneumonia. This Gentle man tells how "Kermit is very much my own voice" and demonstrates how, just by tightening his throat muscles, it can go a little higher, into amphibian range. It's a wonderful interview, but irritating to have it broken up into 14 sections, some of them so short that it feels like just a few sentences. At least give us a play-all feature! Aside from three trailers, the only other extras are "Muppetisms," which are basically three-minute schticks from Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and Pepe the Shrimp.
Bottom Line: Except for a disappointing soundtrack and a hurried ending, "The Muppets take Manhattan" is a respectable entry from Jim Henson Productions. The human-Muppet interaction is fun because the live actors treat the puppets like peers, not inanimate objects, and Donald brings the same kind of warmth to the screen as the women on "Sesame St."