#ThrowbackThursday – The Muppets Take Manhattan

Original US release date: July 13, 1984
Production budget: $8,000,000
Worldwide gross: $25,534,703

Much to my surprise, my #ThrowbackThursday columns on the Muppet films have been surprisingly popular, so I’m back with another installment.  Following the original (and wildly successful) The Muppet Movie (#TBT column) and its sequel The Great Muppet Caper (#TBT column), The Muppets Take Manhattan is another twist on the versatile Muppet concept, as Kermit leads the group to New York in an effort to make it big on Broadway.

I was a fan of The Muppet Movie but found myself disappointed with its follow-up, The Great Muppet Caper.  In that one, the humor was contrived and lacked the wit and charm that the Muppets have been known for throughout their existence.  And it wasn’t just the humor that felt forced, but the entire film was molded around it in a way that just hampered the entire project.  It had been many years since I had seen the third film in the series, The Muppets Take Manhattan, so I was afraid that it would be more of the same.  Thankfully, those fears were unfounded and the franchise got back on track with this entry.  In fact, I may have even enjoyed it more than I did The Muppet Movie.

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The Muppets franchise frequently mixes up their theatrical efforts by switching between films that portray the characters as themselves and others that feature them putting on a performance as entertainers.  The first film was of the former nature with the second being of the latter.  I’m more of a fan of the films that feature the characters as themselves and that’s the route that Frank Oz takes the Muppets in as he directs The Muppets Take Manhattan.  That preference is just my personal taste, of course, but I think the films are helped by presenting the interactions between the characters that audiences have come to love and expect.  If we’re seeing the Muppets as actors putting on a performance, those hallmarks of the property are diluted at best and jettisoned at worst.  That’s not an issue here, as the expected character groupings (Kermit/Piggy, Gonzo/Camilla, etc.) are in tact and delivering what the viewer hopes to see.

Ultimately, though, the stories of these films aren’t very important.  They’re just there to provide a framework for what truly matters: the humor and entertainment value.  After a huge misfire in the previous film, The Muppets Take Manhattan returns the franchise to fine form.  The humor is relaxed and even elegant in a way, branching naturally from organic conversations and situations.  Almost all of it is delivered through witty dialogue or quirky character traits, with the occasional dalliance into slapstick.  The slapstick is used sparingly, however, making it all that much more effective while also not wearing out its welcome.

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The musical numbers are solid as well.  A Muppets favorite, “Together Again” makes its return.  There’s also “Saying Goodbye” which is a rather touching number about parting ways with friends.  And then, there’s also “I’m Gonna Always Love You”, which is featured in the extremely memorable – and overwhelmingly adorable – Muppet Babies dream sequence.  This was the debut of the Muppet Babies, as the film hit theaters a couple of months before the classic animated series debuted on Saturday mornings (I can still hear that opening theme song).  Kudos to that particular marketing coup and kudos, in general, to songwriter Jeff Moss for ensuring that the Muppets deliver in one of the arenas for which they are best known.

The Great Muppet Caper did not perform terribly well, which made sense seeing as how it wasn’t particularly good.  In response, the budget for The Muppets Take Manhattan was reportedly approximately halved and the Muppets were taken back to their roots.  Looking at raw data, Manhattan made less money than Caper but made much more of a profit (if Caper made a profit, at all, which is questionable).  Still, the brand had been somewhat tarnished and was also showing its age.  After this film, it would be eight years before the Muppets would return to movie theaters.  That’s indicative of a trend that occurs often today, in which a poorly-received film is followed up by a superior film that many people avoid because they didn’t like the previous installment.  As always, that’s a shame, but an understandable one.

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Still, The Muppets Take Manhattan shouldn’t be held responsible for the sins of its father, so to speak.  It’s a sharp, enjoyable ride that delivers what fans have come to expect from the Muppets.  I’m glad to see that I shouldn’t expect all of these movies to be a disappointment as I continue to re-watch them down the line.  If you’re looking for a light, non-threatening movie night at home, allow the Muppets to take you with them to Manhattan.

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