Of all the hours upon hours of time I spent glued to the TV set as a child, the greatest moments were those spent with Jim Henson’s Muppets. What can I say, I have a thing for human cannonball acts, singing chickens and boomerang fish throwers. After many years out of the spotlight, their triumphant return to the big screen in 2011’s The Muppets was, to this fan anyway, the best movie of that year. Of course, I may be somewhat biased. With the follow-up hitting screens next week, it seemed a good time to revisit what has always been my favorite of the Muppet films, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.
The film is a musical mystery caper with Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear as identical twin reporters. Along with their photographer, Gonzo, they head for England to try and get to the bottom of a series of jewel robberies perpetrated against famous fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg). With little in the way of financial resources, the trio take up residence in the dilapidated Happiness Hotel, where pretty much every other Muppet character happens to be living.
When they go to meet Lady Holiday, Kermit ends up meeting her new receptionist, Miss Piggy, instead. At first, Piggy pretends to be Lady Holiday and romantic sparks fly between her and Kermit. Meanwhile, Gonzo discovers that the actual Lady Holiday’s brother, Nicky (Charles Grodin),is the real jewel thief. Eventually, Nicky manages to frame Miss Piggy for the crimes. Now it’s up to the Muppet gang to catch the thieves red handed (“what color are their hands now?”) and stop them from stealing the valuable Baseball Diamond.
Henson and company’s first big screen adventure, The Muppet Movie, is a wonderful, sweet and funny movie. Henson had a lot to prove with it. Sure his characters had worked on the small screen, but some wondered if they could carry a movie and exist in the real world. After the release of the film the answer was a resounding “yes.” Now, with the second film, Henson was able to pull out all the stops. Every wild idea he had was fair game. In the first film Fozzie drives a car…in the second Piggy rides a motorcycle. Audiences gasped when Kermit rode a bike in the first film…so this time all the Muppets ride bicycles. This just the beginning: we also get Kermit doing a salute to Fred Astaire, the Muppets on parachutes, and an Esther Williams style water ballet starring a pig. Not to mention the elaborate musical numbers featuring humans and puppets alike. From a puppetry standpoint, this film is a major technical achievement. As you watch this film remember that the lead characters are puppets and then ask yourself…”where are the puppeteers?” Henson so seamlessly covers his puppeteers’ tracks that we have no choice but to believe these characters are as real as you and me. It would be criminal to not recognize the considerable talents of Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, and Steve Whitmire…just a few of the brilliant performers who breathe life into these foam and fabric creations.
The hallmarks of the Muppet movies are all here! The songs by frequent Sesame Street songwriter range from hilariously joyous (“Happiness Hotel”) to wonderfully raucous (“Night Life”). The film may be G rated, but its script, spearheaded by Muppet head writer Jerry Juhl, has a sense of humor that is not necessarily aimed at kids. Henson never intended his creations, even those on Sesame Street, to be considered kids stuff. Then there are the cameos. We don’t have as many in this one as we had in The Muppet Movie, but we do have the funniest. John Cleese’s scene as a bored British aristocrat is the film’s best moment.
In many ways, The Great Muppet Caper was Jim Henson’s love letter to the movies. Watching it as a kid I just loved seeing the Muppets, but viewing it as an adult I see that there is so much more at work here. Henson salutes and parodies classic Hollywood images with more than just his puppetry skills, but also the skills of fine filmmaker. It doesn’t hurt that there are boomerang fish involved too!