After cutting his puppetry teeth on short films and episodes of Sesame Street in the late 60s and early 70s, legendary puppeteer Jim Henson finally got a chance to give his felt faced creations a spotlight show of their own in the mid 70s. That show was The Muppet Show, and it was awesome. So awesome that it eventually spawned a series of feature films. While there’s always room for conflicting opinions, some consensuses (consensii?) about these movies have popped up over the years. It seems that all Muppets are not created equal.
Generally everyone agrees that the original film, The Muppet Movie, was the best. And it’s also largely agreed that the first three movies, the ones that still had Jim Henson involvement, are better than the ones that came after. While there’s some general truthiness to these beliefs, I can’t say that I think those divisions hold up as absolute truths. Thank God, this column would have been a wreck otherwise.
The Muppet sequel that I most often hear is second best to the original is The Muppets Take Manhattan, a story about the Muppets trying to take their song and dance routine to Broadway. Despite the accolades that it gets from the Muppet fan community, I think that Muppets Take Manhattan has some serious flaws that get largely overlooked.
Muppet Treasure Island is the fifth of the theatrical Muppet films, and while people often say that the more recent films aren’t as good as the first three, I don’t think there’s actually a huge drop off in quality until you get to the sixth film, Muppets From Space. That one is dreadful. Muppet Treasure Island is great. It’s definitely my favorite of the tail-end Muppet movies, and I feel like it can stand head and shoulders with the first three as well.
What do they have in common?
They’re Muppet movies. Come on, haven’t you been listening?
Why is The Muppets Take Manhattan overrated?
A big part of the appeal of The Muppets is what a large and diverse cast of characters they are. Every Muppet has their own look, their own personality, and fans can all pick a different favorite that they respond strongly to for any number of reasons. And while Muppet movies are full of absurdist humor, slapsticky prat falls, and even some clichéd catch phrases from Fozzie Bear, where the humor in The Muppets mostly comes from is in watching these crazy characters interact with each other in different situations. Get all of The Muppets together in one place and you know chaos is going to ensue. The problem with The Muppets Take Manhattan is that it jettisons all of the supporting players off to the far corners of the country to tell what essentially becomes a solo Kermit story.
The first act is strong, there are a couple of fun music numbers that are very much up to Muppet standards, and you get to see the whole crew doing their Muppet thing in front of iconic Manhattan landmarks; but then feelings are hurt and everyone decides they’re dragging Kermit down and they should all go their separate ways. So instead of getting a movie where the Muppets are running amuck in New York City and driving Kermit crazy, what you really get is just a movie where a down in the dumps Kermit hangs out with a waitress. It’s not until the final few minutes of the film that the other guys show back up to put on their new show, ‘Manhattan Melodies’, and by then I’ve already become kind of depressed.
And let’s talk about that waitress. Her name is Jenny (Juliana Donald), and she’s about the most boring character that’s appeared in a Muppet movie ever. Go ahead, describe Jenny’s personality to me. I dare you. The girl is a blank page. The human characters in this one are overall probably my least favorite in a Muppet movie (From Space not included). These early films are known for their big celebrity cameos, but the ones in Take Manhattan are pretty lame. The best comes from Dabney Coleman, who is funny as a sleazy con artist; but that guy isn’t even famous anymore (Drexell’s Class was 20 years ago!). And other than Coleman you get a completely unfunny drop in from a blank faced Brooke Shields, a coked up looking Liza Minnelli showing up for two seconds and doing nothing at all, and an interaction between Miss Piggy and Joan Rivers that should have been legendary but is kind of uncomfortable in how weird and unfunny it turns out. Having hardly any Muppets for a big stretch of the movie, no legendary cameos, and a closing number that’s more sappy wedding scene than it is crazy Muppet spectacular is not a good strategy for making a Muppet movie. Henson and company are probably lucky this one didn’t turn out worse than it did.
Why is Muppet Treasure Island underpraised?
All of the things that Take Manhattan doesn’t do that great, Muppet Treasure Island manages to do very well. Okay, so the kid who hangs out with Gonzo and Rizzo is about as lame a character as Jenny the Waitress, but that is more than made up for by the fact that this movie has Tim Curry playing Long John Silver. Curry is great in this role. He starts out playing the character completely two-faced and disingenuous, he goes on to gleefully delight in all of the evil and backstabbing that piracy involves, and then he manages to bring it all home in a closing scene that kind of redeems the scoundrel. He accomplishes all of that in a Muppet movie. There is maybe no actor better suited to co-starring next to these fuzzy little weirdos. Curry is an actor who you can always tell is having the time of his life when he’s up on the screen, but he can go back and forth from absurd humor to weighty drama near seamlessly. In order to be a good Muppet actor you have to believably treat the gang like they’re alive and real, and Curry is able to somehow have a sword fight with a three foot tall frog and not make it look ridiculous. That’s some commitment to nonsense if I’ve ever seen it.
While the plot of Take Manhattan splits The Muppets apart, Treasure Island is a tale of them coming together; a trope that worked very well in The Muppet Movie and works again here. The first act gets everyone together and then the rest of the film sees them sailing around on a big pirate ship. In a way the ship kind of acts as a replacement for the Muppet Theater from the TV show. It’s an isolated space where the Muppets can create their own weird world. In all of the other movies you’ve got these strange puppets invading outside spaces and a lot of pains have to be taken to figure out how they’re going to move around and interact with real life stuff. But here and on the TV show they’re on their own, and they have plenty of railings and platforms for the puppeteers to hide behind. It lets the movie worry less about special effects and more about just giving the Muppets funny things to do.
I’ve often heard the opinion that the Muppets somehow lost their edge after Henson passed away, that the punk rock was gone. But Treasure Island proves that to be false. The first song we get when we’re on the ship hears the crew repeatedly and joyfully sing about how great it is when people die by falling overboard. And if you think that post-Henson Muppets are always whitewashed and bland, then try to explain this exchange:
Gonzo: It feels so weird.
Rizzo: You mean that Mr. Arrow is dead?
Gonzo: Yeah, that. And my pants are filled with starfish.
Rizzo: You and your hobbies.
Seeing the Muppets step into a classic story instead of just playing themselves is a point of contention for some, but this movie finds the perfect roles for each of the characters to play. You don’t get much better than the rats being cast as a tourist group traveling through the Caribbean, or Statler and Waldorf serving as the mast head for the ship. And the two most iconic Muppets, Kermit and Piggy, they get maybe their best entrances in any Muppet film ever: Kermit’s where he melodramatically emerges from the stagecoach, just a tiny frog, after being talked up as somebody important, and Piggy being revealed as the God Queen of a group of savage boars, maybe the most ideal situation she could ever find herself in. Say what you will about the first three Muppet movies, they are great, but Treasure Island gets the characters just as much as any other project they’ve appeared in. And it’s just too fun to be dismissed alongside lesser entries.
Evening the odds.
Did you ever notice that the stage show the Muppets are peddling around Broadway in Takes Manhattan, ‘Manhattan Melodies’, doesn’t even have anything to do with the city? It’s just a musical about Kermit and Piggy getting married. Talk about false advertising; that audience should have been pissed. At least Treasure Island actually ends up having an island with treasure on it. Waka waka waka.
Yes, of course we have more Muppets coverage. We thought you’d never ask. Head on over to our Guide to The Muppets homepage and check it out.