23 November 2011

LIKE AN OLD FAMILIAR SONG

Being the third day of Muppet Week at Antagony & Ecstasy

The confession first: I enjoy The Muppets Take Manhattan more than it deserves: it is not, in any meaningful way, a better film than The Great Muppet Caper (Frank Oz, directing solo for the first time, can't match Jim Henson's easy shifting between moods in that picture, but he's more adept with the camera), and depending on your tolerance for unabashed sentimentality, it would be easy to claim that it is worse. This is due almost entirely to one single musical number right in the middle of the film: Miss Piggy is daydreaming about how different her life and the lives of the rest of the Muppet gang would be if they all had known each other since infancy, and we transition to a baby version of Piggy singing to a baby Kermit a '50s girl-band pastiche, "I'm Gonna Always Love You", with babies Fozzie, Gonzo, and Scooter providing back-up. This scene is, itself, an argument against the film - it serves no kind of narrative purpose whatsoever, and brings the story momentum to a dead stop - but it was so instantly popular with everybody who saw it that it inspired the creation of an animated TV series, Muppet Babies, that started just a couple of months after the film's premiere. And the important part is this: I am of the particular age that Muppet Babies, and not The Muppet Show, was my introduction to the core Muppet characters (of course, as I am a human being, Sesame Street was my introduction to Muppets as such), and remains one of the cornerstones of my childhood nostalgia; so my affection for the film which, whatever its flaws, has live action Muppet babies that are even cuter than their animated counterparts, outweighs my critical judgment. Apologies in advance.

When The Muppets Take Manhattan came out in 1984, it had been three years not only since the last Muppet feature, but three years as well since The Muppet Show had stopped airing. So when the film opens with Kermit singing the light, bouncy "Together Again", he's laying out the manifesto for the entire feature: the Muppets are back, and they're just like you've always known them, and everything in the world is well. This is the primary mood of the film: of all the many stories in the Jim Henson universe whose message boils down to "standing by your friends is the most important thing", not one of them is so thematically focused as this, nor so devoid of ornamentation. It is for this reason that despite including some of the darkest overtones of any of the Muppet movies, The Muppets Take Manhattan is undoubtedly the sweetest and most nakedly good-natured, almost to the point of dysfunction.

The story is as much a throwback to '30s and '40s tropes as The Great Muppet Caper, if not more: Kermit the Frog, in his senior year at college, has just directed a musical starring all his school friends, with the distinctly musty title Manhattan Melodies. The reception is so rapturous, in fact, that he's encouraged to find a producer to mount the show on Broadway. Things don't go that easily, and the Muppets are all obliged to find work doing whatever they can; eventually, concerned that they're putting too much of a strain on Kermit's natural tendency to want to bend over backward to help his friends, the whole gang agrees to split up and find their on way, letting the frog be his own man for the first time. The one exception is Miss Piggy, who is engaged to be engaged to Kermit, and who stays behind in New York to spy on what she believes to be his nascent relationship with the pretty human Jenny (Juliana Donald), daughter of the colorful ethnic (Louis Zorich) who owns the diner where Kermit has found work, however unsatisfying and low-paying. It comes to pass that Kermit attracts the attention of Ronnie Crawford (Lonny Price), the son of a great producer, and to the surprise of nobody, I hope, he's able to get his show on the fast track, and immediately gathers all his friends back. What is surprising, his plans are interrupted by a car accident - the sight of Kermit lying in a dazed pile on the street is as unsettling as it would be to watch Mickey Mouse in a pool of his own blood - and the last act of the movie involves the Muppets rehearsing the show while their leader, suffering from a bad case of amnesia, takes a horrifyingly soulless job in an all-frog ad agency.

The Muppets Take Manhattan is the first film to suffer from what would become the standard flaw of pretty much all Muppet productions, especially those made after Henson's death in 1990: it trades, a lot, on the audience's affection for the characters, without doing anything to work on its own merits. That is to say, The Muppet Movie, or any random episode of The Muppet Show, is great on account of sharp writing and ingenious gag construction and an essential warmth of spirit, and if that film, or that episode, was a viewer's very first exposure to the Muppet universe, there's no reason to assume that the viewer wouldn't be able to respond just as positively to it as anybody else. The Muppets Take Manhattan assumes, on the other hand, that the viewer already has a relationship with Kermit, and Fozzie, and Piggy, and everyone else, and it uses that assumed familiarity both to take some shortcuts in setting up character and plot, and to lend the film the bulk of its effect; on its own, it simply doesn't do enough to establish that the dissolution and then reunification of the Muppets is the stuff of great, emotional drama. This is not inherently a bad thing: it is one of the things that franchises have over stand-alone movies, that they have a great reservoir of past experience with which to manipulate the viewer. On the other hand, the slide of the Muppets from non-threatening anarchist tricksters to sentimental icons isn't terribly exciting - The Muppets Take Manhattan is both the least funny of the good Muppet movies (sometimes it seems almost that this is on purpose), and the least complex, lacking even one single example of meta-narrative play like that which made the show, the previous movies, and the future Muppet Christmas Carol so bracing and clever. Unless we count the presence of several Sesame Street characters, and Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock in the final scene, a cute little gesture that would be significantly bettered three years later in A Muppet Family Christmas.

And yet the whole thing is so easygoing and so damn nice, it's hard not to be charmed by it. The songs by Jeff Moss are at least the equal of The Great Muppet Caper - both films had a songtrack by a Sesame Street veteran, and in both cases there's something ingratiating about the jaunty uptempo tunes reminiscent of that show's best music that's pleasing to the ear, even though there's not a "Rainbow Connection" between the two of them. The Muppet performances are all as good as a band of professionals could be expected to give after years of honing their work, even if there's no height like Frank Oz's work on Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper or Dave Goelz's Gonzo and Jim Henson's Kermit from The Muppet Movie. On the other hand, The Muppets Take Manhattan serves to cement the character of Rizzo the Rat, who had made a few appearances prior to this but only now achieved the final version of his personality, and gave Steve Whitmire his best role in the core Muppet canon (though I'd happily get into a knife fight to defend his best character overall being Wembley from Fraggle Rock). And that is maybe also a reason that my defenses are unduly weakened by The Muppets Take Manhattan - Rizzo is high in my personal pantheon of great Muppets.

Anyway, the whole thing is childish and gloppy with overbaked sentiment and a great deal of fun to watch. It's Muppet fan service, perhaps, but there are worse fandoms to serve. It is ultimately a story made from a place of love, not mercenary motives or cynicism, and that carries through right to the desperately earnest and obviously heartfelt final lines:
What better way could anything end?
Hand in hand with a friend.
If there's a better way to sum up Jim Henson's simple, boundlessly humane philosophy, I have not seen it.

No comments: