The most interesting thing about The Muppets Take Manhattan is the name on the directing credits. Jim Henson’s longtime creative partner Frank Oz took over the reins for the first time (though he co-directed 1982’s The Dark Crystal with Henson), which eventually led to a successful non-Muppet career behind the camera. In this case, it proves to be a shrewd choice. Henson was always more of a non-conformist than Oz. His tone was a little more mischievous, his aims a little more subversive. Oz brings sweeter sensibilities to the table, which lets The Muppets Take Manhattan find its own beat distinctive from the two films that preceded it.
I confess that it’s probably the weakest of the first three Muppet movies, though that doesn’t mean much when talking about these guys. Once again, Kermit and the gang find themselves on the short end of the show business stick, with a Broadway musical that they just know will do gangbusters if anyone bothers to pay attention to it. After a disastrous first volley, the Muppets disperse across the country, with only Kermit keeping the faith and staying in Manhattan. He makes a friend at a nearby diner (Juliana Donald), much to the consternation of Miss Piggy, and soldiers on with the help of the diner’s copious rat population. (Rizzo finally gets to come off the bench in this one.) And since he’s Kermit, he never gives up, even in the face of wacky mayhem of all varieties.
The concept feels a little more shopworn here than with previous films, as the Muppets show the first signs of going through the motions, and often lack the energy they had in previous movies. Too many of them find themselves on the sidelines here, and too many faces seem to watch more than act. The cast always has to juggle their screen time of course, but here for the first time you find yourself wishing we could see a little more of them a little more often.
Having said that, it’s awfully hard to stay mad at these guys for long. Oz provides plenty of opportunities for the Muppets to do their thing, (my favorite moment: Kermit yelling out “the frog is staying!” to an utterly indifferent New York) and by and large, that thing will never get old. Paul Williams’ songwriting talents are missed, but Jeff Moss fills in admirably (including one memorable number that gave rise to the Muppet Babies). The expected bevvy of guest stars take their turns as well, all of them upstaged of course (though Gregory Hines makes a game showing as a put-upon roller-skater), but all of them having a good time. The old-fashioned nature of the storyline gets just enough snark to stay endearing, and in the process helps it stay as ageless as the stars at its heart.
The Muppets always needed that sweetness. It was their secret weapon, the one that got you when you were laughing too hard at their silly little shtick to notice. And here, it blends into the clichés of the story to inoculate it against the ravages of time. MGM used to release these kinds of movies every six months, with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland giving in their all to make their little song-and-dance show succeed. The Muppets Take Manhattan just takes that formula and adds a few jokes about the Health Department. Coupled with the gang’s usual bag of tricks, it lends a refreshing air to some old Hollywood chestnuts, delivered in an age when too-cool-for-school sarcasm was the order of the day. The film probably needed to be gentler than its predecessors, though it pays a price with our expectations. To do otherwise would be to blend in with the crowded summer field a little more readily. And if there’s one thing these frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and whatevers should never do, it’s blend in.