Sony // 1984 // 94 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // August 15th, 2011
"Do you realize it could be against the law to have a chicken dancing on stage?"
By the mid-'80s, visionary puppeteer Jim Henson's gaggle of fur and felt creations had become icons, not only for kids but their parents. The success of The Muppet Show spawned a series of live-action movies starring Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and friends. The Muppet Movie, which came out in 1979, created a template for the series, mixing vaudevillian one-liners, big name cameos, and catchy music to tell an alternate history for how the gang met and hit it big in Hollywood. 1981's The Great Muppet Caper upped the ante, transplanting the Muppets into a London heist plot. Three years later, Kermit and pals returned stateside with The Muppets Take Manhattan, the last of the original Muppet trilogy and first solo directorial outing for Frank Oz (he'd shared a directing credit with Henson two years earlier for The Dark Crystal). The last of those Muppet movies is also first to make the leap into high-definition, as The Muppets Take Manhattan takes on Blu-ray.
The Muppets are graduating from college (for some reason), and have decided that to bring their senior variety show musical to New York City. But their attempts to get Manhattan Melodies on Broadway is a non-starter. After run-ins with crooked producers and closed doors, Kermit bids goodbye to his friends, staying behind in the big city to continue to his search for a backer. He finds friends and a part-time job at a local diner, run by an oddball named Pete (Louis Zorich, Fiddler on the Roof), and his aspiring-fashionista daughter, Jenny (Juliana Donald, The Purple Rose of Cairo). With her help, Kermit undertakes a series of outlandish stunts so he can break into show business and bring his Muppet friends back.
The Muppets Take Manhattan is the weakest of the original Muppet movie trilogy. Even so, a weak early Muppet movie is still miles ahead of anything produced after Jim Henson's death, and there's plenty here to enjoy. Frank Oz co-wrote the screenplay with Great Muppet Caper scribes Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses before being asked by Henson to direct. As such, much of the film's strengths and weaknesses can be laid at Oz's fuzzy feet (be they of the pig, bear, or animal variety).
The main problem is that the Muppet gang is split up for much of the film. Where the first two Muppet movies focused on the puppets, Manhattan spends most of its time with Kermit and the human characters he meets -- especially Jenny, and Ronnie (Lonny Price, Dirty Dancing), the first-time producer who picks up the show. It's great fun to see what Fozzie, Scooter, Rowlf, Gonzo, and Dr. Teeth are up to while Kermit is busy in the Big Apple, but their absence, and a late subplot involving a lost and amnesiac Kermit, takes away some of other movies' goofy ensemble fun.
Still, The Muppets Take Manhattan is peppered with great gags that keep things moving. Pete's "peoples is peoples" speeches are founts of head-scratching wisdom, Rizzo and his rat kitchen crew are welcome smart alecks, and there's nothing quite as surreal as Kermit being mistaken for a Passaic nudist named Enrico Tortellini.
The film also continues the proud Muppet tradition of hilarious celebrity cameos, and there are some great ones here, including Dabney Coleman as a sleazy producer, Joan Rivers as Miss Piggy's cosmetic counter coworker ("Pigs don't have eyebrows"), a short-shorts wearing Gregory Hines ("You gave her the huggies?"), Brooke Shields as a diner patron fending off Muppet vermin ("Do you believe in interspecies dating?" "Well, I have dated some rats before."), Mayor Ed Koch ("I'm looking for a frog who can sing and dance." "If he can also balance a budget, I'll hire him"), Elliott Gould, and Liza Minnelli. Unlike most cheap modern cameos, these aren't throwaway parts. Oz wrote the characters first, then found the name actors that best fit the parts.
The Muppets Take Manhattan is no slouch in the music department, either. Besides the catchy tunes from the musical-within-the-movie, the film boasts the bittersweet "Saying Goodbye," and the Ô50s-style number "I'm Gonna Always Love You" -- sung as part of the imagined flashback that introduced the Muppet Babies. The mini-musical that's performed at the end of the movie is one of the highlights of the film. The touching finale is a fitting end not only to the movie, but the trilogy as well.
The Muppet movies did not end in 1984, of course, though there would be no others produced while Jim Henson was still alive. Henson's tragic death in 1990 marked a shift in the franchise -- in part a by-product of The Muppets being sold to Disney -- and while his characters have continued on in later movies like The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island the newer films don't hold up to the quality of the originals.
Sadly, that guarantee of quality doesn't apply to the Blu-ray transfer. There is increased detail, noticeable more in close-ups and indoor scenes than wide shots, but the film looks dark overall. Color saturation is good on the Muppet characters, but detail gets lost in the shadows. There doesn't seem to be much edge enhancement trickery, although it comes at the expense of a heavy film grain that can be distracting at times. The DTS-HD Master Audio track is clean, if front heavy. It's a solid mix that does what it needs to -- no more, no less.
The bonus features are equally unimpressive. The only one worth watching is 14 minutes of interview segments with Jim Henson, which you can watch individually, or all together. Henson gives some good insights into the making of the film, his admiration for Frank Oz, the differences between directing and acting, and the magic of puppetry. The only other extra is a trio of "Muppetisms," produced for cable TV, and featuring Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and a shrimp named Pepe who isn't even a character in this movie.
The Muppets Take Manhattan may seem like an odd choice for the franchise's Blu-ray debut, but it's makes more sense once you know that it's one of only two Muppet films not owned by Disney (Muppets From Space is the other, and it hits Blu-ray on the same day). Although this is my least favorite of a very good trilogy of Muppet movies, it's still fun to watch. A so-so transfer and lackluster bonus features keeps this from being a must-buy, but if purchasing this is the only way to ensure we get the other movies on Blu-ray, then just think of it a belated wedding present to a certain interspecies couple.
It is good to be together again. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2011 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Russian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* DVD Copy
* Jim Henson Company
* Muppets World