1 Hr., 37 Mins.
The Great Muppet Caper March 21, 2018
Jim Henson’s The Great Muppet Caper (1981) begins high in the sky. Classic Muppet characters Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo are pleasantly perched in a polychromatic hot air balloon, idly hovering in the air. The sky is clear and blue. The music is inviting and whimsical. The characters chatter away. We anticipate action, adventure. But then Kermit interrupts Henson’s careful scene setting. “Listen, nothing’s going to happen,” Kermit says just as Fozzie starts worrying about getting lost in the air. “This is just the opening credits.”
Such sets the tone for the film to follow, which is a gleeful comedy caper with enough dumb-funny self-reference to get the Zucker brothers seeing red. Light but whip smart, The Great Muppet Caper is something of a perfect popcorn pic: balmily escapist, easy to like, unafraid of pandering to formula. It's a summation of everything Henson and co. did so well at the apex of Muppet madness, conjoining a frolicsome comedy style with an undeniable sense of technical wonder to rival, say, the spectacles of Busby Berkeley or the epics of Cecil B. DeMille. I’d say it's the best of all the Muppet flicks, though I’m certain eggs might be thrown in my direction by Muppet Movie (1979) die-hards who just can’t resist the power of “The Rainbow Connection” and subversive road comedies.
Calling Caper anything less than delightful would be a sin, though: it makes for some of the most amiable and knee-slappingly funny 97 minutes ever offered by Henson and his cohort. Set in England, the movie finds Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo playing investigative reporters in the area to probe a robbery. Their primary subject is Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg), a highfalutin fashion designer whose priceless jewels were snatched right from under her nose the other day. Their intent is to get a post-pilferage interview and possibly write a profile of sorts. Kermit’s the main man, with Fozzie a sidekick and Gonzo a too-starry-eyed photographer. The goal is mostly to keep their editor (Jack Warden) happy; the gnarly investigation stuff is up to the police, not them.
But since the genre of the film in question is in the title, things get murky shortly after they arrive. It turns out that Holiday’s expensive treasures weren’t stolen by some conniving rando but rather her scheming brother Nicky (Charles Grodin), who’s enlisted the help of fed-up models to do his dirty work. And the robbery about which Kermit and friends are writing was just an appetizer: Nicky’s main objective is to get his paws on his sis’s massive Baseball Diamond (haha), which is now on display in a high-tech museum down the way called the Mallory Gallery.
This is, predictably, quickly discovered by this talkative amphibian and his acquaintances. So with the help of Miss Piggy (playing Miz Holiday’s receptionist who initially complicates matters by posing as her lady boss) and other Muppet favorites, this real-life rat and his harem of beautiful wingwomen will hopefully be caught red-handed and turned into the fuzz.
Of course, all the shenanigans are routinely commented on with meta aplomb; smashing the fourth wall is a given here. “Next time they want stunts, they get a double,” Miss Piggy cracks as she’s forced to scale a building. Says Lady Holiday after delivering an unnatural monologue in another scene about how her brother is not to be trusted: “It’s plot exposition.” Indeed, Henson and his co-conspirators are aware that a movie detailing the misadventures of a bunch of flamboyant anthropomorphic animals is pretty ludicrous to begin with. So how wonderful it is that his and his writing team’s comedic sensibilities are so wicked and deadpan. Not a joke is wasted here. (I especially love the running gag that Kermit and Fozzie are identical twins, and no one can tell them apart unless the cuddly bear’s wearing a tweed hat.)
But the nice thing about anything Muppets-related is that the jokes are steady and intelligent but the technical and atmospheric fancifulness is too. When not grinning at a clever one-liner, our mouths go agape in response to the puppeteering. Henson and his creative henchmen know a thing or two about pulling off complex visual tricks in order to make his stable of puppets come across believably and realistically. But they’re never above pulling out all the stops to dazzle us. For really no other reason besides the obvious “wow” factor, there’s a Miss Piggy-centric water ballet sequence; there’s also a scene that sees Kermit and the gang somehow riding bicycles through a sun-dappled park. Are these rather brazen attempts to get critics to call the movie awe-inspiring? Sure. But is the movie actually awe-inspiring? Undoubtedly.
It’s the mix of legitimately hilarious comic stylings and technical bravura that has kept the Muppets relevant for so many decades, anyway. (Not to mention the assemblage of lovable characters.) I think it’s The Great Muppet Caper that speaks the most to just how amazing this ultra-specific entertainment division can be at its best. You can forget about The Muppet Movie or The Muppets (2011) — The Great Muppet Caper is where it’s at. I’ll be digging up my copies of Seasons One through Three of The Muppet Show (1976-’81) to keep myself surfing on this wave of nostalgia. A