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Summer of ‘84—A Swift Kick: The Muppets Take Manhattan

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Summer of ’84—A Swift Kick: The Muppets Take Manhattan

A now-forgotten treasure trove of kids television: the early ’90s weekend afternoon movie block on Nickelodeon. Too poor at that point to provide viewers with an entire station’s worth of original programming, Nick filled out its schedule with awesome remainder-bin oddities like the Fleischer Gulliver’s Travels, the dreadful Filmation Treasure Island (with Davy Jones as the voice of Jim Hawkins) and the Chuck Jones Jungle Book movies (I still have fond recollections of an afternoon spent watching and rewatching the beguiling Rikki-Tikki-Tavi). I only have a liminal recollection of that era’s television programming, but when I look back at early Nickelodeon, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer frugality of the entire venture: the existential dread of cheapo Canadian import Today’s Special and the endless Inspector Gadget and Lassie marathons.

Was this real? Did I dream it?

I’ve never found someone else who can confirm ever having seen these on Nickelodeon, but I know it happened. I was young, yes, when these programs were on the air, but these images constantly replay in my head. Most of what aired during this block has been remanded to the dustbin of cinematic history, but I absolutely treasure these movies, or at least my memories of them: the way a screwed-up Betacam SP transfer of a fading print of Lassie Come Home gives that film a hazy pink sheen that enhances its glorious images of the California countryside, the way my parents wood console television framed a murky transfer of John Hubley’s 1959 masterpiece short “Moonbird.” My memories are fuzzy, but they’re mine, and I credit a childhood of fuzzy misunderstandings of old children’s movies with my dreams of making my own films.

Of the early Muppet films, The Muppets Take Manhattan was the only one to find itself on the Nick movie block and was far and away the biggest ticket item syndicated in that time slot. The bastard of the original trilogy, its rights belonged to Tri-Star (later Sony) and not ITC/Henson (later Disney), so its syndication was cheaper. It made sense otherwise as a programming choice—it tied into Nickelodeon’s animated Muppet Babies (a series inspired by one of the film’s more imaginative, if unmotivated, musical sequences) as well as the channel’s syndicated reruns of Fraggle Rock and The Muppets.

I loved the Muppets growing up, and so when I discovered in considering the Summer of ’84 prompt Keith sent us that The Muppets Take Manhattan was released a scant few weeks after my birth, I decided to revisit it and its role within the Muppet franchise. It was only in doing research for this piece that I really came to realize just how much Muppet property there is: the Henson/Muppet canon consists of dozens of television series, movies, one-off television specials. What struck me was not the sheer quantity of the material but the consistency—a word I use in two ways. First: the relative high quality of Muppet programming (Muppets from Space withstanding), the unwillingness of the Muppet creative team to pander, taking for granted the intelligence of their young audience. Second: the ability to produce a sense of internal continuity from one show or film to the next .

It occurred to me that the Muppets—as defiantly modernist as any children’s entertainment (dig the fake film-burn midway through The Muppet Movie, which caused the projectionist at the theater I used to program to freak out mid-screening)—are also an update of one of the hoariest and oldest theatrical traditions: a Commedia dell’arte troupe. Establish Kermit and Miss Piggy as The Lovers (their love plot serves as a major narrative thread in nearly every Muppet movie, including this one) and the rest of the troupe falls into place: Gonzo as the deformed, foolish Pulcinella; Rowlf as the self-effacing, loyal Pedrolino; Fozzie as Arlecchino, the slow-witted clown. The Muppet films speak to us in part because they reapply centuries-tested comic traditions to addressing and critiquing television and film themselves. Part of Jim Henson’s creative genius was that he understood how to walk that delicate line between traditional storytelling and self-conscious address, and The Muppets Take Manhattan is a thorough application of his style. There is no narrative continuity between The Muppets, The Muppet Movie, and The Muppets Take Manhattan, and it’s the creators’ strong ability to create dynamic characters that allows them this freedom.

Of the original trilogy of Muppet films, The Muppets Take Manhattan is the least reflexive—there are no obvious moments of fourth-wall breaking, and the film itself isn’t an outright genre parody in the style of The Great Muppet Caper (or adaptation of kid-friendly public domain literature, in the style of the later Muppet Treasure Island and Muppet Christmas Carol). At no point does Dr. Teeth break out a copy of the script in order to clarify the narrative throughline, as in The Muppet Movie. Yet, like that film, Manhattan serves as an origin-story of sorts—a way of exploring the rise to fame of a group of animals (“And—other things,” Kermit acknowledges in front of a cheering audience) that preserves the comic relationships and types built into the franchise.

Manhattan offers a genial, weightless narrative inspired by studio-era genre cinema. Where The Great Muppet Caper plays as an ersatz Howard Hawks screwball, The Muppets Take Manhattan is pure MGM: idealistic youth, extended song-and-dance numbers, relentless cornpone. Think of Kermit as Mickey Rooney and Miss Piggy as Judy Garland. Its narrative is one that could have been scooped directly from Depression-era mid-budget gems like Babes on Broadway or Babes in Arms: Kermit and gang graduate from Danhurst College (Vassar alums will recognize their campus serving as stand-in) and struggle to put the college variety show he authored on Broadway. They part ways, take half-assed service jobs to pay the bills, and continue to plug away at their Broadway dreams. It alternates between delirious highs—one sequence has Kermit trying to create a buzz for his show by replacing Liza Minnelli’s caricature at Sardi’s with his own—and dolorous lows: Scooter taking a job as an usher at a dollar movie theater in the Midwest, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem reduced to playing polka to pay the bills, Kermit contemplating his fate (“My friends—my friends are all gone.”) while looking out from the top of the Empire State Building.

Suffice it to say that rewatching it now, years later, living in a sub-200 sq. ft. studio in New York, it’s all so very real to me: Kermit’s resilient naïveté and drive to perform are the stuff commencement speeches are made of, and his third-act crisis, in which amnesia drains him of his will to perform and forces him into a soulless corporate job advertising soap, is a marvelous encapsulation of the crisis-of-conscience faced by post-collegiate types. It’s Kermit’s drive that makes him the most enduring of Henson’s creations. Underneath his cheerful demeanor and deadpan wit is an almost Machiavellian need to come out on top, to convince anyone and everyone to love him. The humanity of Kermit is his willingness to put himself out on the ledge, as in the terrific sequence in which he schmoozes John Landis wearing an Afro and leisure suit, or his quiet dignity in the face of a scam artist (Dabney Coleman) trying to bilk him out of $300. Unlike other post-collegiate films like Kicking and Screaming or Reality Bites, Manhattan has little interest in pursuing narratives of ennui or inaction. It’s a childish fantasy to hold on to and pursue dreams like the ones Kermit seeks, to insist that his group of friends stay united to put together a show, but it’s a beautiful one too. Twenty years ago, The Muppets Take Manhattan pointed me toward a dream of becoming a filmmaker, and today it’s given me a swift kick in the ass telling me I’m not working hard enough to do it.

Brendon Bouzard is author of the blog My Five Year Plan.