The Daily Stream: The Muppets Take Manhattan Has Frogs, Dogs, Bears, Chickens...and Heart

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Muppets Take Manhattan"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Kermit and his pals have only just graduated from Danhurst College when they decide to try to get their original stage musical, "Manhattan Melodies," turned into a Broadway show. (And before you ask: Yes, this film ignores the events of both "The Great Muppet Caper" and the original "Muppet Movie" before it. "Continuity? Never been there, but I hear it's lovely in the summer. Wocka Wocka!" as Fozzie Bear might put it.) However, the Muppets quickly come to realize that the last thing most bigwig producers are looking to finance is an earnest musical about pursuing your dreams and falling in love — least of all one where all the characters are frogs, dogs, bears, chickens, and so on.

As the rejections pile up and their funds dwindle, the pressure takes it toll on these googly-eyed dreamers. Finally, with tempers running hot one day, Kermit snaps and yells at his tight-knit group of friends, telling them they've failed and have to accept it. Convinced they're too dependent on their small green leader to guide them (even after he apologizes), the Muppets thusly decide it's time to go their separate ways and give up on their dreams for good. Rest assured, though, it doesn't take long for Kermit to see the error of his ways and resolve to get his friends back by making "Manhattan Melodies" a reality, whatever it takes. Or, as he declares to the entirety of NYC one night, "THE FROG IS STAYING!"

Why It's Essential Viewing

"The Muppets Take Manhattan" is a film I grew up on and probably the Muppet project I quote and/or reference the most often in my daily life (though "Muppet Treasure Island" is a close second). It's also a movie that — even after taking off my rose-tinted glasses — I continue to admire as an adult, and not just because I get the more risqué jokes or know who all the cameo guest stars are now.

Unlike the two Muppet films before it, "The Muppets Take Manhattan" was co-written and directed by Frank Oz in his solo helming debut. It might lack the inspired mayhem of "The Muppet Movie" and the razzle-dazzle showmanship of "The Great Muppet Caper," yet there's a sureness to the movie's craft that befit its plot and foreshadowed Oz's later efforts behind the camera on acclaimed comedies like "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Bowfinger." Besides wanting to get his solo directing career up and going, Oz's goal with "Manhattan" was to take the Muppets' relationships and personal struggles more seriously than past films had. In that regard, the movie is a success. This is by far the most story-and-character-driven of the three Muppet films that Muppets creator Jim Henson worked on, as well as the one with the most mature emotional outlook and depth. (Obviously, I mean by the standards of the Muppets. It's not like this is an Ingmar Bergman movie starring the Swedish Chef — as much as I would like to see that.)

"Manhattan" was also made at a time when both Oz and Henson were trying to evolve as storytellers, having directed "The Dark Crystal" two years earlier. As a result, the two were coming to realize just how resistant Hollywood has always been to any artists who want to do something different or stray away from tried-and-true formulas. I can't help but suspect they channeled some of their frustrations with the film and TV industry into their third Muppet flick. Indeed, "Manhattan" is fairly cynical about the world of big-shot producers and how they react to any art (be it silly or serious) that dares to be innovative.

Together Again...and Saying Goodbye

For the reasons I've listed, I honestly get why "The Muppets Taken Manhattan" doesn't resonate as strongly with people who, for valid reasons, feel it goes overboard on sentiment and poignance at the expense of zany comedy (of which, rest assured, there is still plenty). For me, though, "Manhattan" is very much to the first three Muppet films what "The World's End" is to Edgar Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. Instead of attempting to one-up the movies before them when it comes to comedic spectacle, these films wisely focus on developing a richer emotional core. This not only makes them feel more personal, but it also serves to show the growth of the creatives behind them.

Of course, re-watching "Manhattan" these days is an emotional experience for other reasons. This was the last non-"Sesame Street" Muppet film Henson and Richard Hunt — the beloved puppeteer best known for portraying and basically being a flesh-and-blood version of Scooter — worked on prior to their deaths in 1990 and 1992. The franchise lives on to this day, but was never the same after the pair of them passed. One can only imagine how it felt for Oz to suddenly lose not only his longtime collaborator but also his close friend Henson, only to lose Hunt just as suddenly not long after. Still, as the song from "Manhattan" reminds us, "Saying Goodbye" is a sad but necessary part of life — and thanks to the film, I can always spend a couple hours "Together Again" with them when I want — nay, need — to.