By the time The Muppets Take Manhattan hit movie screens in 1984, I was unofficially Too Old to check out such fare. Before you send me a nasty e-mail, let me note that this statement does not reflect my current attitude toward flicks like Manhattan. Instead, this tone looks at the picture through my then-17-year-old eyes, and at that time, I had no interest in anything Muppet.
Actually, Manhattan was the first Muppet flick that I skipped. I’d checked out both 1979’s The Muppet Movie and 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper during their theatrical runs, and I’d enjoyed them to varying degrees. Too many years have passed for me to firmly recall my then-current thoughts, but I believe I really liked TMM. However, I think I found Caper to be less stimulating.
It’s possible that my mild-disenchantment with the 1981 film affected my disinterest in Manhattan, but I really think this occurred mainly due to my age. Most high school seniors wouldn’t want to see “G”-rated fare, so Manhattan wasn’t for me. As I recall, the movie didn’t perform especially well either, and it disappeared fairly quickly from screens. Because of this, the question probably became moot.
In any case, now that I’m 34 and I have fewer biases against alleged “kiddie” flicks - I couldn’t be such a big Disney fan if I felt that way - I thought it’d be fun to give Manhattan a look. I enjoyed The Muppet Movie, so I figured I might also dig Manhattan, though my expectations were much lower. All of the various Muppet films after the first have varying reputations, and I still had my apparent-dissatisfaction with Caper in my head. Add to that my definite dislike of the most recent Muppet movie, 1999’s Muppets From Space, and I didn’t think I’d get much pleasure from Manhattan.
However, I actually enjoyed the film quite a lot. While one can argue its merits in comparison with The Muppet Movie, I think they both offer lots of charms, and in some ways, I prefer the 1984 flick.
Both films feature very simple plots, with story lines that revolve around the pursuit of stardom and success. TMM was a little more ambitious in that it followed the origin of the Muppet crew, while Manhattan starts with the gang already together. As the movie begins, we discover that all of our favorites - Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest - are about to graduate from college. After the success of Kermit’s self-penned “Manhattan Melodies” stage show, he and the others are encouraged to take it to Broadway, which they attempt to do.
The gang believe they’ll quickly strike it big, but the cruel realities of the city soon become evident as door after door slams in their collective face. Ultimately the crew split, which leaves Kermit alone to pursue his dream, and matters take a serious turn for the worse when an accident impairs his memory. Will Broadway producers give the Muppets a chance? Will Kermit lose the amnesia and rise to glory? Will Miss Piggy forgive his apparent affair with a human waitress (Juliana Donald)?
Will the Pope continue to pray? I hate to provide spoilers for movies, but I don’t think it’s saying too much to indicate that all will eventually end well for our gang. Manhattan isn’t Se7en, after all, so I don’t think it’s unfair to reveal that the film has a happy ending.
Its beginning and middle are pretty chipper as well. Actually, the characters in Manhattan go through some tough times, but the movie presents their collective woes in such a bright and amusing way that we always have fun. Besides, since we know that happy ending will eventually emerge, it’s not cruel to laugh at the Muppets when they’re down.
That’s especially true since Manhattan tosses in some really good material. The film’s narrative may not be terribly coherent, but I really liked a lot of the bits that popped up along the way. The surprise star of the show was Kermit himself. That may sound odd since Kermit is supposed to be the star, but just because he receives top billing doesn’t mean he’ll be the most interesting character. In many ways, Kermit always resembled Mickey Mouse; he showed a bland “everyman” persona that lacked much fire or spark. It was left up to the supporting folks to add flair and pizzazz. Instead of Donald Duck or Goofy, the Muppet universe thrived on characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear, and Gonzo, and Kermit acted as the calm center of this manic realm.
For much of Manhattan, that model remains in place, but on a few glorious occasions, the situation changes. Kermit actually adopts a few different “roles” during the movie. As part of his master plan to jumpstart production on his show, he poses as both a West Coast bigshot and as a successful Broadway mogul; neither work out as planned, of course, but it’s hilarious to see the milquetoast frog try to take on these parts. He also behaves unusually when he has amnesia; Kermit ends up with an advertising agency, a gig that provides more opportunities for fun.
Jim Henson clearly relished the chance to expand Kermit’s range. While the rest of the flick had its moments, the scenes in which Kermit plays different roles were easily my favorites. This was something out of the ordinary, and all of these bits worked swimmingly.
One aspect of The Muppet Movie that I disliked involved the flick’s bloated roster of guest stars. It provided a seemingly endless list of big names, almost all of whom did little more than distract us from the story. Manhattan also includes quite a few human guests, but I thought these actors fit in more cleanly with the tale.
That happens for a couple of reasons. For one, the stars shine much less brightly than those seen in TMM. While that flick featured folks such as Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, Manhattan ekes by with the likes of Linda Lavin, Brooke Shields and Liza Minelli among others. While these performers clearly lack the stature of the talent found in the first movie, that actually was a plus. Because they were less powerful stars, they didn’t provide nearly as much of a distraction.
In addition, Manhattan went to greater lengths to smoothly integrate its guest stars. In TMM, a certain pattern emerged: a Muppet would refer to an off-screen character, and we’d immediately see that person with his or her back turned to the camera. Slowly they’d whirl about and we’d discover their identity. This got old very quickly and became quite annoying.
Manhattan presents the actors in a much more straightforward manner. It could still be a little coy at times, but I didn’t think it approached the annoying excesses of the older film. I found almost all of TMM’s cameos to be distracting, whereas some of the bits in Manhattan were actually fun. I never thought I’d attach the word “fun” to anything that involved Minelli or Lavin, but what can I say? Their bits worked for me.
Many will regard this as heresy, but as a whole, I preferred The Muppets Take Manhattan to The Muppet Movie. Frankly, the latter is probably a slightly stronger film, but in terms of overall levels of fun, I thought Manhattan was more enjoyable. It’s a more casual piece that doesn’t try so hard to dazzle us. For the most part, it seems content to be a fluffy and silly romp, and it succeeds as a generally delightful piece of entertainment.
The Muppets Take Manhattan appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Although some concerns crop up throughout the film, as a whole it provided a fairly satisfying experience.
Sharpness seemed consistently positive. Focus appeared well-defined throughout the movie, and I discerned no significant examples of soft or fuzzy images. Across the board, the flick looked accurate and distinct. No moiré effects or jagged edges appeared, but some moderate print flaws did interfere with the presentation. Some grit cropped up at times, and I also saw some speckles, but not a lot of these sorts of defects occurred. Grain was the film’s biggest concern, as modest amounts of this element could be seen during fair amounts of the movie. I never witnessed the copious amounts of grain viewed during The Muppet Movie, but I still thought too much of it appeared throughout Manhattan.
Colors were a strong aspect of TMM, and they also looked quite good during Manhattan. The Muppets themselves offered the best opportunities for bright, vivid hues, and these tones seemed clearly and boldly replicated. I also thought the Broadway production numbers provided some clean and vibrant colors, and much of the film really created a varied and brilliant palette. My only complaint in this area related to skin tones, which occasionally came across as a little too pink. Perhaps the Muppets themselves may require particular lighting that negatively affects humans. If that’s the case, then the right decision was made. The Muppets dominated the film, so it was most important that they look good. In any case, the slightly “off” look to the flesh tones was really the only concern I had about colors, as the film largely presented solid hues.
Black levels also appeared strong. These elements looked fairly deep and rich, and contrast seemed fine. Shadow detail was appropriately clear without any notable thickness or muddiness. Ultimately, The Muppets Take Manhattan provided a positive image; were it not for the grain and other minor print flaws, the picture might have entered “A” territory.
Although The Muppets Take Manhattan only offered a monaural soundtrack, I found it to be surprisingly satisfying. Frankly, a film from 1984 really should have featured a multichannel track, especially since 1979’s Muppet Movie provided a surround mix. However, if I had to choose between the latter’s thin and lifeless - but multichannel - audio and Manhattan’s reasonably full, rich - but single-speaker - tones, I’ll go with Manhattan any day.
Across the board, this was a very solid mono track. Dialogue consistently sounded natural and distinct, with no edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects appeared reasonably accurate and realistic, and they displayed no signs of distortion. Granted, the film didn’t offer a wide variety of those sorts of elements, but it still provided a solidly believable presentation.
Music lacked terrific high end, but I thought those aspects of the songs were acceptably clean and crisp, and low-end often sounded quite deep. Oddly, within the movie’s “main” songs - the production numbers mounted throughout the flick - I found bass response to be fairly rich but not particularly terrific. However, when low-end appeared via more unusual methods, it sounded more distinct and full. For instance, when the Dr. Teeth band played the polka party, bass came across as noticeably more intense. I also thought that the tones of the bass guitar during the repeatedly-aborted auditions in Mr. Price’s office seemed nicely clear. Ultimately, Manhattan featured an audio track that worked quite well within the constraints of the monaural format.
The Muppets Take Manhattan includes a few supplements. The most significant of these is an Interview With Jim Henson. Actually, we find a slew of mini-segments, all of which came from the same session. There are 14 separate clips, and these run between 19 seconds and 143 seconds in length; in all, we get a total of 14 minutes and nine seconds of material.
The vintage of the interview does not appear, but I’d guess it took place around the same time as the theatrical release of Manhattan. In any case, I really enjoyed this discussion with the Main Muppet Man. Henson covered a lot of interesting topics, such as the challenges involved with the roles and a variety of related subjects. It’s fascinating to hear him talk about the characters and his work, and I thought this was a very compelling piece.
However, Columbia-Tristar (CTS) lose points for the extremely awkward execution of the interview. If you looked at the running times of the various snippets, you’ll note that they’re all quite short. As such, they end quickly and we find ourselves back at the DVD’s menu with great frequency. Why couldn’t these clips have been edited together to form one coherent piece? At the very least, the DVD should have offered a “view all” option so that we could watch all of them without so much fuss. These were some fun clips, but attempts to view all of them became much more time-consuming than they needed to be.
In addition, we get three Muppetisms. Created in 1989, these appear to be promotional bits in which a variety of characters espouse little words of wisdom like “never give up” and “think big”. The three clips individually feature Fozzie and Pepe in their own snippets, and the other offers both Kermit and Miss Piggy together. They run between 30 and 60 seconds for a total of 140 seconds of material. They’re cute little bits but nothing terribly special.
Lastly, the DVD tosses in a mix of “Bonus Trailers”. Whenever Columbia-Tristar tout “bonus” trailers, that means you can forget about finding the promo for the featured flick itself. In any case, here we discover ads for Muppets From Space, Buddy, and The Adventures of Elmo In Grouchland. Bizarrely, the DVD for The Muppet Movie provided the trailer for Manhattan, so I have no idea why it doesn’t appear here as well. Many CTS titles include short production notes within their booklets, but that’s not the case here, as the DVD provides nothing more than a title card.
Despite a lackluster roster of supplements, I thought The Muppets Take Manhattan was a generally solid DVD. To my modest surprise, I rather enjoyed the movie itself. It offered a genial and charming experience that provided some wickedly fun moments from an unlikely source: bland EveryMuppet Kermit, who gets to stretch his legs. The DVD offers somewhat flawed but largely positive picture and sound along with the minor complement of extras. I wish the disc had included more features, but with a list price under $20, The Muppets Take Manhattan is a good deal and should hop into the collection of Muppet fans.