When famous fashion designer Lady Holiday reports her priceless diamond necklace stolen, reporters Kermit and Fozzie are on the case! Starved for a story, the two new journalists head for London, without the foggiest idea where to begin!
The plot thickens when the goods are found on one of Lady Holiday’s models, Miss Piggy! It’s up to Kermit and his Muppet sleuths to catch the real robbers red-handed…before Miss Piggy winds up in the pen!
eyelights: the non-stop zaniness. the kooky cameos. the many meta-references. the musical numbers. the lavish production.
eyesores: the facile ending.
“I hate to be rude, but we’re trying to do a movie here.”
1981’s ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ is the second in the zany live-action Muppets film series. It was Jim Henson’s first directorial effort, and it shows: the film is ebullient and loaded with all sorts of detail – the mark of someone who sees a rare opportunity to prove -if not outdo- himself, and lets out all the stops. If ever a movie was the essence of Jim Henson’s Muppets as he envisioned them, this is it.
Despite the success of ‘The Muppet Movie‘, there had been a lot of struggle behind the scenes; there was tension between the performers and director James Frawley, who was not part of Henson’s tight crew. So, for the follow-up, Henson decided to take over the helm. Amazingly, with a budget half the size of the original, he managed to squeeze out a film that looks 2 or 3 times as impressive as the first.
It is, by far, my favourite Muppets film.
But I didn’t see it in the day. I remember quite clearly that I had no idea what to make of the humongous billboard featuring Kermit in a trench coat and hat, as my mom and I would pass the local drive-in. In my mind, Kermit was a Sesame Street character. What in the world was a “Great Muppet Caper”, exactly? Everywhere I went, there was that picture of Kermit, and I remained puzzled.
Many years later, now an adult, I got the chance to see all of the Muppet movies. I was a devout Muppets fan by then, having seen the television series and relishing every moment of it: I would watch reruns of it every night before dinner time – even when I was deathly ill, too sick to truly focus. ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ really blew me away: it was clever, fast on its feet, and non-stop fun.
As with most of the Muppet movies, ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ is a stand-alone story; there is no continuity between the last one and this one, nor will there be any with the follow-up, ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’. Basically, the filmmakers assumed that audiences were familiar with the Muppet characters and injected them into a zany, rollicking jewel heist adventure set in Great Britain.
Our story finds two budding reporters (Kermit and Fozzy), siblings from a great lineage of journalists, and their photographer friend (Gonzo), traveling to London to make a name for themselves – by interviewing Lady Holiday about the jewels that were stolen from her. Unwittingly, they mistake the assistant (Miss Piggy) for her, get caught up with the thieves, and have many misadventures.
Auspiciously, the picture begins with Animal eating a chunk out of the opening title, in a spoof of MGM’s production logo featuring Leo the Lion. Shortly thereafter, we are in the open air, floating high above the clouds with Kermit, Fozzy and Gonzo, each in a hot air balloons, commenting on the opening credits. Their wisecracks get the audience through the formalities with a few well-placed chuckles.
If one thought that ‘The Muppet Movie’ was self-aware, it pales in comparison with ‘The Great Muppet Caper’. Here, the characters are constantly breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging that they’re in a motion picture, even going so far as to having Miss Piggy ask Lady Holiday why she’s recounting plot elements to her only to be told: “It has to go somewhere.”
This plays a few different roles:
- On the one hand, by telling them that they are in on the joke, it creates a bond with the audience. They know that we know, and now we know that they know. Complicity established.
- On an other hand, it creates a remove from the nonsensical or illogical aspects of the film: it’s just a movie, we are reminded. It makes these moments, otherwise insufferable, easy to appreciate.
- Finally, it tells the audience that, despite the corniness and silliness, the Muppets aren’t idiots – and shouldn’t be viewed that way. By knowingly winking at the audience, what they’re doing is showing us that they’re merely playing a part – that they’re not actually stupid. This makes it possible for the audience to laugh along to what would otherwise be written off as kids’ stuff.
For instance, Kermit and Fozzy play twin brothers in the picture – even though one if a frog and the other a bear. This adds absolutely nothing to the story; it’s merely silliness. But they’re constantly being confused with one another, and sometimes even get confused themselves. It takes the absurdity to such a calculated degree that we know they’re being facetious, not moronic.
Really, it’s so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh.
Unlike the previous film, which was more episodic, ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ is plot-driven, with very few moments not finding a comfortable place in the script. Even the gags and humour are imbedded in each sequence, as opposed to the films being built around the gags, as can be the case with many comedies. It’s not a complex script, for sure, but it’s a well-conceived one.
Another thing that I love is that pretty much all of the key Muppets were given parts in the picture; they’re not central to the plot, but they do have an unmistakable presence – especially since they stay at the same hotel and because Kermit enlists the help of the whole group towards the end. To my delight, even Oscar the Grouch ends up making a cameo appearance in this picture.
There are, as was the convention for the early Muppet films, tons of cameo appearances by a variety of well-known performers, including John Cleese, Peter Falk, Peter Ustinov and Jack Warden (to name a few). John Cleese’s cameo (featuring ‘Fawlty Towers’ colleague Joan Sanderson) is priceless and a highlight of the picture, if not the whole series. It’s so divinely British!
Of course, who could ever forget Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin as the two non-Muppet leads. Rigg is always a joy, no matter what part she plays. Here she chews the scenery appropriately enough, but remains delightful. Grodin, however, steals the show (haha!) by over-playing each moment well beyond convention, making his performance so bad that it’s good.
I like this movie so much, that even the musical numbers appeal to me. Imagine that! ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ has a handful of superb musical number featuring dozens of cast members and an almost equal amount of gags in each. These sequence are busy and well-produced, and most of the songs are much better than in the other films, featuring excellent arrangements and better production.
The musical numbers are so elaborate in some cases that it’s surprising how well they come off, given the logistics of integrating puppets and humans (case-in-point, the opening sequence and the underwater choreography sequence. Yes, underwater!). Jim Henson did a stellar job of directing this first film, blending the real world and the puppets together effortlessly. (He would do even better in the future…)
‘The Great Muppet Caper’ is everything that is terrific about the Muppets, when they’re at their best. Fuelled by the vision of multi-disciplinarian and creative genius Jim Henson, it couldn’t possibly be more fully-realized. It’s a family film that can appeal to all ages, young and old. It’s hilarious, it’s fun, it’s exciting – it’s as entertaining as can be. If it doesn’t steal your heart, then clearly Kermit and the gang can do nothing for you.
Date of viewing: February 17, 2014