The Muppets Take Manhattan is a wonderful film, but for better or for worse, it doesn’t follow the strictest narrative structure. Any film student would be able to easily explain the hero’s journey by using the narratives from The Muppet Movie or The Great Muppet Caper, but Muppets Take Manhattan seems to forge its own path, which helps avoid any derivative themes and cut out a lot of predictability.
That said, MTM‘s deviation from the familiar structures leaves it with something missing. Sort of like how Kermit feels that “Manhattan Melodies” is lacking something, which turns out to be “more dogs and frogs and bears”. In this case, the film is lacking a villain.
You’d be hard pressed to find a family film without an obvious antagonist. Your Biff Tannens or Voldemorts or (spoiler) Prince Hans of the Southern Isles. Even in the other Muppet movies, we have folks like Doc Hopper, Tex Richman, and self-proclaimed “villain pure and simple” Nicky Holiday. But who’s the villain of Muppets Take Manhattan??
Some may say the villain is Martin Price, the shady Broadway producer portrayed by Dabney Coleman in the first act of the film. While Price is certainly villainous, he’s dispatched pretty quickly and doesn’t return. If he were our antagonist, Kermit and the gang wouldn’t have anything standing in their way to realize their dreams. And they had so much more in their way!
For years, I argued that the film’s antagonist was “failure”, and that the Muppet troupe found themselves struggling against it for the entirety of the movie. As smart as that answer made me sound (or perhaps “pompous”?), it’s an awfully broad and simplistic answer. If you think about it, every film hero is up against “failure”, whether they’re trying to punch the Joker or save their kidnapped daughter or avoid breaking the space-time continuum. Kermit is not unique in this regard.
In listening to ToughPigs’ Movin’ Right Along podcast – which just completed covering all of Muppets Take Manhattan – the answer struck me. The antagonist was right in front of us the whole time. It’s in the dang title of the movie. The villain is Manhattan.
Okay, hear me out.
The Muppets’ dream is to put their musical review on Broadway, the most famous street in the most famous city in America. To do this, they need to get themselves to New York City, and success will follow. Easy, right?
Right away, Manhattan starts throwing barriers in their way. New York is one of the most expensive cities to live in, so they’re forced to live out of storage lockers at Penn Station. New York breeds greedy and selfish businesspeople, and the Muppets immediately find themselves at the mercy of Martin Price (Remember him? From four paragraphs ago??) as they almost fall for his pyramid scheme. New York is overstuffed with millions of residents, making it extremely difficult to be noticed above the competition, as seen when the Muppets are being denied over and over again by various producers.
Manhattan is doing everything it can to discourage and dispel the Muppets. And it mostly works, as all except Kermit and Piggy feel defeated and leave the city. If New York City could grow facial hair, this is the point in which it would twirl its mustache.
This is also the point in the film when Kermit truly faces his enemy. He marches to the heart of the city – the top of the Empire State Building – and refuses to admit his own defeat. Try as it might, it isn’t strong enough to force Kermit out too. The frog is staying!
While Kermit continues his uphill (or, uptown?) battle, the city continues to fight him. He’s up against unemployment, the cultural elite and one-percenters (who, sadly, are not fooled by a whispering campaign), and a corrupt NYPD cop, who refuses to chase down a potential culprit who admitted to intent to murder. (Yeah, Kermit wasn’t really going to “get a contract and kill ’em”, but Elliott Gould didn’t know that.) Meanwhile, Miss Piggy is up against her own Manhattan maladies, between the cat-calling construction workers, underpaid gig work, and even a purse snatcher. While New York may be a city of opportunity, it also breeds all of these troubling truths.
Manhattan may be making life difficult for the Muppets, but it’s at this point that it finally attacks. The yellow taxi – one of the more recognizable icons of New York – attempts to take Kermit out of commission. Sure, you could blame the cab driver or the fact that Kermit didn’t notice that “Don’t Walk” sign, but I think the city made a last-ditch effort to defeat the Muppets in a drastic and, frankly, overblown way.
So if Manhattan is our villain throughout the film, how do the Muppets defeat it? Easy. Kermit finds the answer in the same place where he gets the solution for why Manhattan Melodies isn’t up to his standards. It needs more dogs and frogs and bears! No, New York doesn’t need more people (good lord, 8 million isn’t enough??), but Kermit does need his friends. The support of his team: Fozzie and Gonzo and Janice and Scooter and all them. Jenny: a great example of a New Yorker who hasn’t been jaded by the crush of the city, but instead finds joy in hard work and education. Ronnie: a friend with means who’s willing to use them to help his fellow man (er, frog) not for financial gain, but to help realize a dream. And Pete: a generous immigrant who didn’t let New York change him, but instead makes an effort to change the world around him.
The glorious thing about New York is that the city is filled with millions of people, all of whom have cultures and histories and dreams, and we all live right on top of each other on this tiny island. New Yorkers succeed because we’re able to lift each other up and share in what makes us special. We live as a diverse collective, giving us a worldly perspective with a local focus.
The Muppets had a lot to overcome between their collegiate beginnings and their show-stopping Broadway performance. They were able to take everything New York City could throw at them, and they came out looking great. The Muppets didn’t just take Manhattan, they conquered it.
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com