While there are similarities between the plots of The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), one could argue that the latter takes a slightly more adult (or just plain pessimistic) view on life: while Kermit and Co. have a relatively easy time striking a Hollywood film contract in their movie debut, their insistence on moving their college variety show to Broadway in their third foray on the big screen is fraught with all the setbacks, disappointment, and bad luck that people commonly experience when they’re thrown out into the real world for the first time.
But they’re the Muppets. They were made to live their dreams and encourage the world to do so by example. From the very start, you know it’s only a matter of time before they’re lighting up 42nd street. All that remains is the journey that will take us there.
But even with all of that to consider, the most interesting question presented by The Muppets Take Manhattan is a far simpler one: are Kermit and Miss Piggy actually married? (I mean the real them, not “them” as the characters in the movie. See where I’m going here? The meta is mind-breaking.)
I’ve always loved The Muppets Take Manhattan for that “watch our show come to life” premise — any theater kid is bound to feel an affinity for the pride and camaraderie that comes from putting on a play with all your best friends; there are few highs that can match it. Then I graduated from college, and understood the movie on an entirely different level: we all know it’s one thing to be a big shot on campus and quite another to make it in the major leagues. So when the gang decides to leave Kermit in New York City and go it alone to make sure that he doesn’t feel burdened or responsible for the group’s success, we watch them do what we all do: turn to one of those dreaded “first jobs” where they’re abused by customers or employers, unappreciated or ignored entirely, yet still so desperate to tell Kermit that they’re doing alright in the great big world.
Watching this movie after leaving school, it was jarring to discover how those experiences paralleled my own, my friends, anyone who ever felt the pressure to succeed the very instant they landed outside the comfort of school or home. We see the crew go through the ringer. It’s not just the jobs that look familiar to us, but the seemingly meaningless advice you received from the adults around you — so brilliantly parred down in Pete’s frequent “peoples is peoples” ramblings — or the moments where you wish you’d been grown up enough to take life more lightly. (How about Piggy getting that sloppy makeover from Joan Rivers and proceeding to laugh like a maniac when it gets her fired by her posh jerk of a boss? If only I had been able to brush off my first job or two in the same way.) The letters Kermit’s friends send to reassure him that they are doing well reflect reality just as uncomfortably; the lies we’ve all told old classmates and family members to protect our own egos and avoid more empty encouragement.
And all of that makes getting the gang back together an even greater triumph. To continue pursuing that star on the horizon, to reunite when life has tried to pull you onto separate paths is just the sort of confidence in friendship and creativity that the Muppets have given generations of viewers. This film is an affirmation to anyone who has found life outside their imagination a little grim: don’t forget what you want. Don’t lose touch. You can do anything if you’re a little weird, a lot determined, and surrounded by people who love and believe in you.
Just don’t ever give up.
It also contains this awesome testament to a woman’s ability to do anything she puts her mind to in life, performed by Miss Piggy AS A BABY:
I could leave it at that, but there’s another aspect to the movie that deserves attention, and it deals with the meta constructions inherent in Muppet canon. Take The Muppet Show as an example. The conceit behind it is that Kermit and his friends are real people (or rather, they are real frogs, pigs, bears, chickens and whatevers), real actors who put on a variety show. We’re fortunate enough to see all the crazy goings-on backstage, where we get a glimpse of what they’re all really like and how they relate to one another as performers.
Of course, the Muppets are genuine actors. That is part of their charm: when they give interviews, that’s the “real” Gonzo and Rizzo, the “real” Rowlf. They exist as live celebrities, and that makes them truly unique, more real to their audience than Mickey Mouse or Dora the Explorer could ever hope to be. In fact, I recall reading that despite how well the puppeteers always got on, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and the lot used to have problems with the Muppets trying to upstage each other during shoots. They are their own entities. And because of that (and their propensity for breaking the fourth wall on camera), we’re never quite sure whether comments made by Dr. Teeth are the words coming straight from the band leader’s mouth, or scripted lines that have been added for comedic purposes. That uncertainty, I would argue, is part of the key to the Muppets’ success.
The level of meta that we reach in The Muppets Take Manhattan is deliberately confusing on that count, specifically in the film’s finale. In the musical, Manhattan Melodies, Kermit and Miss Piggy are getting married. This all gets a little fuzzy when Kermit realizes that Gonzo is not playing the minister according to plan — it looks like a real one. So, to begin, we’ve got two levels: they’re acting in a play on Broadway where they get married, but now it looks like the character Miss Piggy is trying to get the character Kermit the Frog to marry her within the film.
Here’s the curveball: That guy marrying them? That’s a real minister. From the real world. I’ll give you a moment to assimilate that.
So if the guy is a real minister, then it’s possible that there’s a third level to this: Miss Piggy the person, the actress who has been chasing after Kermit for years on The Muppet Show and through three films, wants to get married. And now it’s happening on the Broadway show movie set for their new film, The Muppets Take Manhattan. I know that they decide to add more friends and creatures to their musical at the end of the film, but honestly, what is the Sesame Street crew doing there? All the pigs (who could easily be Piggy’s family, there to see their girl get hitched)? And that’s not even taking into account that Piggy tried to trick Kermit into marrying her once on The Muppet Show in a similar fashion (Kermit figured it out and called Lou Zealand on to throw fish before he had to say “I Do”). It’s just a bit suspicious....
So are Kermit and Piggy really married? I’m sure we all have our preferred answers to that one. But the fact that you can even ask that question in the first place is sort of the point. It’s part of what gives the Muppets such a special place in our hearts and the entertainment world at large.
Emily Asher-Perrin is gonna be a movie star, and she’s gonna learn to drive a car, and she’ll be a veterinarian too, and she’s gonna always love you. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.