Henson #3 – The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

(Launching the Jim Henson Project with his first film, and ours…)


Puppets can be movie stars, or at least that was the lesson behind 1979’s The Muppet Movie, which turned Jim Henson’s band of misfit critters into proven box office draws. Henson pulled the plug on the “Muppet Show” after five popular seasons to try his luck in films, and with a $65 million take for The Muppet Movie, the conventional wisdom said he made a safe bet.

For the sequel, Henson looked to merge his unique characters and sense of humor with a familiar film genre, the crime heist. The result was The Great Muppet Caper, another financial success (though a bit more modest), and a sequel that some Muppet fans still argue is better than the original. It’s also the first and only Muppet movie that Henson himself directed.

The Story: Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo float through the opening credits in a hot air balloon, chatting about the meaning of certain job titles while waiting patiently for the movie to begin. They soon land in the middle of New York City and right into a huge musical number explaining the plot (“Hey, A Movie!”) which, basically, is that Fozzie and Kermit are “identical” twin reporters, Gonzo is their photographer, and they’re up against a nefarious villain (Charles Grodin), who sneaks into the act to whisk away the Lady Holliday’s (Diana Rigg) diamond necklace.

In case you missed the joke.

Fired for missing the story right under their felt noses, the trio trek to England to recover the diamonds, restore their name, and get the scoop. Unfortunately, they’re so broke they’re forced to fly as cargo, where the only way off the plane is to be tossed out mid-flight. After landing (luckily) in a pond, the gang seeks lodging at the seedy, yet free, Happiness Hotel, where they quickly meet up with the entire background Muppet crew.

On the hunt for the story, our heroes track down Lady Holliday, who has coincidentally left her office in the charge of her new receptionist, Miss Piggy. Piggy and Kermit fall in love at first sight, but in the confusion Kermit mistakes Piggy for Lady Holliday and Piggy fails to correct him. This mistaken identity subplot propels us for a few amusing scenes, including one in which Piggy breaks into John Cleese’s house to impress Kermit, but when Lady Holliday’s new necklace is stolen (again by Grodin, now revealed to be her brother, Nicky), the pig is up and the masquerade ends.

Kermit is wounded by her lies, but Piggy makes it up to him during a swirling song and dance number in the park. Their blossoming romance burns Nicky, who has improbably fallen in love with Piggy and now decides to frame her for the thefts out of revenge. Piggy goes to jail, and Nicky’s true target becomes clear. Lady Holliday, now thinking her jewelry is safe, intends to display her infamous “Baseball Diamond” in an art gallery, where Nicky can easily pilfer it alongside his gang of supermodel thugs, Marla, Darla, and Carla. (Think kind of a proto-version of Eliza Dushku’s cat burglar gang in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.)

Headlines manage a lot of business in this movie.

But there is no surrender in the Muppets!! Kermit and the gang bravely gather together to stop Nicky (“Some of us may be killed.” “I’m out!”). Miss Piggy breaks out of jail and races to the scene of the crime, just in time to see the Muppets playing keep-away with Nicky and the Baseball Diamond. The authorities arrive, Piggy clears her name, the diamonds make it back to Lady Holliday, and our heroes return triumphantly to New York… dropped out of another plane’s cargo hold, of course.

The Scene: Jim Henson often joked that the simplest effects are the ones that get the most attention.

“It’s amazing… you work and work on the most difficult things and people say, ‘That’s nice.’ Then something easy will occur and it will be all anyone talks about! In the first movie it was Kermit riding a bike. It was very easy to do that. It was just a simple marionette with strings. In the same film there was that whole complicated sequence with Gonzo in the balloon, crashing into the sign and landing in the car. It took forever to film that — and all the talk was about the bike!” – Jim Henson

For the sequel, Henson decided to go with the flow and create an entire musical number around bicycle-riding Muppets. Piggy rides a bike, Kermit does bike tricks, and the entire song crescendos with a slew of Muppets peddling their way through. Funny, but funnier when you know the background.

What a perfectly compatible couple.  Except for the genitals.

Honorable mention goes to the dance sequence for “The First Time It Happens”, a song that eventually snared an Oscar nomination for the film. The scene is a direct lift from the classic Busby Berkley musicals, including Miss Piggy underwater and an opera-singing Charles Grodin. (“You can’t even sing! You were dubbed!”)

The Line: Kermit, upon first laying eyes on Animal: “What’s wrong with your drummer? He looks a little crazed.”

Zoot: “Oh, he’s just upset about missing the Rembrandt exhibit at the National Gallery.”

Animal: “RENOIR! RENOIR! RENOIR!”

That’s Muppet humor. Light, funny, and intelligent. This movie is full of bits like that, but this is my favorite.

None of these people are wearing pants.

The Production: Finding the money for a second Muppet movie was a piece of cake after the original’s impressive haul, but sequels of the time were expected to be cheap, so the Henson team had to find a way to make due with less. Jim Henson stepped into the director’s chair, guaranteeing the film wouldn’t be just a cheap knock-off, and therefore, cuts would have to be made in other ways. As “The Muppet Show” had been filmed in England for its entire run, the decision came quickly to set the story in London, eliminating the cost of moving the entire Muppet production away from their home studios.

Henson and his muppeteers were determined to top the bar set in the previous film and complete the most complex Muppet shots – and by extension, puppet shots — ever filmed.

From the film’s official 1981 production notes: “Miss Piggy’s underwater musical number was the most difficult scene to shoot, mostly because of communication problems. Lights, cameramen, cameras, speakers, monitors and Miss Piggy were all underwater. There were also 18 professional swimmers who had to dive into the pool at the right moment. We tried to get a dolphin to direct this part, but only one goldfish answered the ad.” I think the goldfish bit is joke, but the difficulties in the scene weren’t. Frank Oz claimed that he spent an entire week underwater during the filming of that scene.

Somehow this scene never came up when he interviewed with CNBC.

Ultimately, the hard work didn’t quite pay off. The Great Muppet Caper, perhaps signaling the end of the Muppet fad, raked in about half of The Muppet Movie’s box office take. Four more Muppet movies would follow, but none would again approach the original’s success.

…A Jim Henson Film: Take a moment to really study The Great Muppet Caper, and you’ll get a very good sampling of Jim Henson’s attention to world-building and suspension of disbelief. He used every page of the playbook to make his Muppets come alive, which is, of course, a key to his overall success with puppetry. It starts simply with camera techniques, from showing the Muppets’ feet as often as possible, to having them ride bikes, dance, or just walk down the street. In a few shots, Henson uses a live actor to play Miss Piggy, shooting her from behind to keep up the illusion.

Otherwise these are just three animals with hands up their butts.

His coup, though, is using the technique of breaking the “fourth wall”, or letting the Muppets break character in certain scenes, such as in the park where Kermit criticizes Miss Piggy’s overacting. With live actors, this technique dispels the illusion for the audience and reminds them that they’re watching a movie. When the Muppets do it, it actually enhances the illusion – not that the movie is real, but that the Muppets are actually actors. It makes them more real to see them flub their lines or bicker over script changes.

In addition, Henson’s love of music and celebrity cameos is on full display here, as is his particular style of inoffensive humor. Even the “danger” is cheerfully non-threatening.

Lasting Impact: I desperately want to write a page on the lasting impact of the Muppets, the empire Henson created, and the cultural nostalgia an entire generation of children and young adults has for his work… but I’m not here to talk about the Muppets. I’m here to talk about this film, and I can’t really find any lasting impact. It’s a sequel to The Muppet Movie, and any lingering influence should really be tracked to the original instead. It’s an enjoyable taste of what the Muppets used to be, but as a film, it’s just a drop in the overall Muppet bucket.

Reason For Ranking: Although the film has its rabid fans, in my opinion The Great Muppet Caper isn’t even the best Muppet movie, and it certainly can’t compete against the rich, fully realized worlds which Henson developed for his next films. A great start for Henson, though, and a fun film to relax with on a lazy afternoon.

The Jim Henson Project

1. ???

2. ???

3. The Great Muppet Caper

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