2:20 pm Jul. 22, 2011
It’s easy to understand why the Landmark Sunshine Cinema regularly screens The Muppets Take Manhattan as part of their midnight-movie initiative.
It’s not that the film, which screens this weekend as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Jim Henson-centric film retrospective, is really a midnight movie. It had a perfectly healthy total gross of approximately $25.53 million when it was released in theaters in 1984 and does not have any more of a cult following than any of the other Muppet movies do. The Muppets Take Manhattan is not, in other words, anything like El Topo, Eraserhead or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
But think of it this way: Landmark Sunshine’s midnight program is co-programmed with WNYU’s Afternoon Show and clearly targets a college-age demographic. So it makes sense that they regularly show The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s the Muppet movie about how to survive post-graduate life in Manhattan.
As an instructional guide, the movie is probably of limited use to actual human beings. But The Muppets Take Manhattan is a fantasy you can easily relate to if you are, say, a struggling young would-be artist enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School for Performing Arts.
In the film, the Muppets, led by Kermit and Miss Piggy, travel to Manhattan armed only with high hopes and a dream. They want to get a big theatrical producer to put their show, Manhattan Melodies, on Broadway. They know that their show is good enough and, doggone it, they’re going to make it. After arriving at a nondescript bus depot, they shack up in coin lockers for what they hope is only an overnight stay. Or as Fozzie Bear puts it, “It’s only for a day. We’ll all be on Broadway tomorrow.”
Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and the group’s naiveté quickly becomes a liability in the big bad city. Martin Price (Dabney Coleman), the first producer they consult with, is not who he claims to be. Price is really a con man named Murray Plotsky, and he gets arrested right after he offers to finance the Muppets’ show.
Still, Kermit’s pitch shows that he and his friends are really wearing their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to their show. He describes Manhattan Melodies as a show “about a couple of kids” who come to New York to get married. The play is also, according to Kermit, “about life in the big city.”
But Kermit doesn’t know what life in the big city is like. Which is why it’s so funny to hear Plotsky jump in and ask him, “Cops, shootings, car chases—that kind of thing?” When Kermit tells him that his show would be about “songs and dances,” Plotsky says, “Songs and dances? Might be interesting. Nobody cares about shootings anyway.”
Though the city that Generation Y viewers know is not as dangerous as the one that director Frank Oz and Jim Henson gently parodied in The Muppets Take Manhattan, college- and post-grad-age New Yorkers will recognize the brusque rejections Kermit and his gang suffer here.
The song number “You Can’t Take No for An Answer” is a great, recession-friendly anthem for young people looking to find a job, an apartment or a romantic partner. The same is true of the speech that Rizzo the Rat, a waiter at Pete’s Diner, delivers to Kermit after he expresses concern when Rizzo offers to take his order.
“Do you wanna know what I make around here?” Rizzo yells. “Nothin’! Nothin’! I live on tips. I work hard. I try to get tips to feed my family and my mother. It just isn’t fair!”
Substitute “to feed my family” with “to pay off my student loans” or “to feed myself” and you’ve got a universal lament.
And forget about turning to the locals for advice. Though Pete (Louis Zorich), the owner of the diner where Rizzo works and Kermit will too, is a kind man, his advice is rambling and not quite coherent. Adults, take note: this is what your words of wisdom sound like to your young and hopeful loved ones, friends and acquaintances alike. Pete, a stereotypical New York immigrant who made good by working his ass off, breaks down all of city life for Kermit thusly:
“I tell you what is: big city, hm? Live, work, huh? But! Not city only. Only peoples. Peoples is peoples. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is peoples. Is dancing, is music, is potatoes! So. Peoples is peoples, ok?”
It’s pearls before swine. Kermit replies sarcastically, “Yeah. Thanks. That helped a lot.” He can’t even afford lunch.
The bright young things who are tenacious enough to find their own way in Manhattan today will find a kindred spirit in Kermit, especially during his speech on top of the Empire State Building. Looking out at the Manhattan skyline at night, Kermit vows not to leave the city until he’s made Manhattan Melodies a hit. His rant is the longest and most emotional soliloquy in the film, but everything else around him is silent. It’s his make-or-break moment, and New York has seen it a million times before.