The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Written by Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Jerry Juhl, and Jack Rose
Directed by Jim Henson
By 1981, the Muppets were a scorchingly hot media franchise. Puppeteer Jim Henson had been growing a collective of fellow puppet enthusiasts since the 1950s. In the late 1960s, he was a major creative force in developing Sesame Street. Throughout the 1970s, Henson pitched the Muppets with a series of television specials. American networks weren’t interested in developing the concept into a television series; however, a British producer was. The Muppet Show debuted in 1978 on ITV and was later aired in first-run syndication on CBS. This led to the Muppet Movie in 1979, and it was clear a sequel would be in the works. Jim Henson had great ambition not just for these characters but the art form of puppetry.
Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo are investigative reporters who are sent to London to follow up on the jewelry robbery of Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg). Due to their low funds, the trio ends up staying at the Happiness Hotel, where a cavalcade of their fellow Muppets is also holed up. Kermit visits the offices of Lady Holiday but mistakes her new secretary Miss Piggy for the fashion icon. A date is set up for later that night, and of course, the whole gang gets roped into attending. Lady Holiday and her ne’er do well brother Nicky (Charles Grodin) show up and wouldn’t you know it, another theft occurs ending with Lady Holiday’s necklace vanishing. Nicky also develops feelings for Piggy, which puts him in a love triangle against Kermit. Eventually, the Muppets figure out who is behind the robberies and rush against the clock to stop the theft of the legendary Baseball Diamond.
I think people may have forgotten how meta The Muppets were from the start. The Muppet Movie is this ouroboros of Kermit going to Hollywood where he gets a movie made about the same film we just watched. From the opening scene of Caper, we have the characters talking about and commenting on the credits. They are fully aware they are characters in a film. Throughout the picture, Kermit will make remarks about a specific thing happening to move the plot forward. It’s even funnier because this is a world where you have Muppets and humans living side by side, and no one ever comments on that. As we saw in 2011’s The Muppets, this is a world where they have existed just as long as humans.
The opening musical number, “Hey, A Movie!” is all about the fact that these characters are about to be in a movie. At one point, Kermit stops singing to address the audience and explain to them who he and the others are, expressing that he is jealous of the audience getting to watch it unfold. We even have the identity of the jewel thief revealed in this scene as he sings a line after unmasking. Sweetums, the full-body Muppet monster, is injured repeatedly throughout the number and asks near the end if there’s any way he can prevent the movie from happening. It’s a fun type of irreverence that inspired modern popular media that followed but is rarely mimicked in a way that captures the magic of the original.
I particularly loved the sequence where Miss Piggy has lied about where she lives (17 Highbrow Street) and proceeds to scale the house, climb in through a window, and answer the door for Kermit. This happens while a husband (John Cleese) and his wife have dinner and comment without appearing to be affected about the intrusion into their home. At one point, Cleese does rise and pursue Piggy as she gives Kermit a tour of “her home.” When they are confronted, and Piggy asks about a good restaurant, any threat dissolves, and he goes about recommending an excellent supper club. The film is chock full of cameos like with another favorite being Peter Falk popping in for a scene to deliver a hilariously crazy speech.
While I thoroughly enjoyed The Muppets (2011), and I have yet to watch Muppets Most Wanted, I find the Henson era of the characters is still the best. Projects like Muppet Christmas Carol and Treasure Island are delightful, but Henson, being the creator, had this deep understanding of why the Muppets connected with children & adults. His work wasn’t perfect, but there is a magic there that work from 1991 onward misses. I know he never fully realized his dreams of making puppetry an art form beyond children’s entertainment, and that initiative certainly appears to have died with him. I think the media landscape was a lot friendly to this sort of entertainment where it could comment on itself without the need to be cynical. There are musical numbers here that are earnest; the bike ride scene with Kermit & Piggy comes to mind. You can feel the crew entirely in love with making this film, and that’s a hard thing to find anymore.