In their feature films, the Muppets often operated on one of two notes. There was their trademark optimistic, gentle sweetness, and there was broad, slapstick, farcical comedy. The best of the Muppet films found a balance between the two, usually skewing, however, more pointedly toward the former. Jim Henson’s 1981 entry The Great Muppet Caper, playing as a kiddie matinee on Saturday and Sunday, September 16th and 17th, definitely – and enthusiastically – skews to the latter. The Great Muppet Caper is perhaps the silliest of the Muppet films (even Muppets from Space had a more palpable emotional core), and possesses little of the wistful sentimentality of the 1979 original.
The Great Muppet Caper was the only one of the Muppet features to be directed by Henson, and it seems like a deliberate effort, on his part, to remind audiences of the Muppets’ origins; that is: As a subversive, near-punk entertainment for adults. The Muppets, you may recall, made an early appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, were featured on Saturday Night Live, and The Muppet Show (1976 – 1981) aired in primetime. The pilot was subtitled Sex and Violence. Henson worked in the world of kids’ TV in the early days (he worked on Sesame Street after all), but the Muppets were always intended to be a more mature, naughtier entertainment. The Muppet Show could easily be described as burlesque.
So when it came time for Henson himself to helm a Muppet feature film (in his theatrical feature debut), he was perhaps making it as a pointed antidote – or at least as a knowing contrast – to the effective, but arguably sedate sentimentality that the Muppets had accumulated in their previous film.
As such, The Great Muppet Caper is a noisy, chaotic farce from beginning to end. It plays like a spoof of a well-worn Alfred Hitchcock mistaken identity plot, but with self-aware asides, slapstick pratfalls, and silly puns. It’s one of the few Muppet films to openly acknowledge that human beings living in a universe, and casually interacting, with puppet animals is – when we get right down to the nitty-gritty – kind of absurd. Henson, I think, never lost sight of that absurdity, and wanted to highlight it in his film. Perhaps he felt audiences were taking the show’s premise – that talking animal puppets are real – a little bit for granted, and wanted to use broad comedy and satire to bring us back a little bit.
Indeed, The Great Muppet Caper – like most of the Muppet films – is staged as a production-within-a-production, ensuring that what we are seeing is not the actual canonical lives of the Muppets, but a show they are themselves putting on (the only films that purport to be about the actual lives of the Muppets are Muppets from Space, The Muppets, and Muppets Most Wanted). The film the troupe has put together follows a pair of investigative reporters (Kermit and Fozzie) as they travel to London to investigate the theft of a famous gem, the Baseball Diamond, which belongs to the lovely Lady Holiday (the lovely Diana Rigg). Kermit mistakes Miss Piggy, there for a job interview, for the real Lady Holiday. Charles Grodin plays the conniving thief.
Miss Piggy appears to be the real star in The Great Muppet Caper, and her wild egotism, vanity, neuroses, and faux class certainly requires a different tone than that of The Muppet Movie. With Kermit – a calm Zen master – in the lead role, the film he headlines will be calming and emotional. With Piggy, we need something more chaotic by design. To offer a juxtaposition: It was astonishing to witness Kermit the Frog riding a frog-sized bicycle in The Muppet Movie; it’s still, to this day, an effect we can marvel over. The Great Muppet Caper ratchets that particular visual up to a rather silly height by putting Miss Piggy on a full-size motorcycle. Which she uses to roar across town, her hair flowing in the wind.
The Great Muppet Caper also marks the debut of Rizzo the Rat, named after Dustin Hoffman’s character from Midnight Cowboy. Rizzo, in being a new character, offers a fresh perspective on the Muppets universe, allowing us to maintain something of an objective point of view. Rizzo is one of the key reasons The Great Muppet Caper functions so well as satire. Rizzo will end up becoming a sidekick to Gonzo, and the two of them will serve as would-be narrators in the Muppet literary films of the 1990s.
All Muppet outings have included a good number of celebrity cameos, and The Great Muppet Caper has a few fun “Hey! It’s [famous person]!” moments. I feel, however, that they might have missed an opportunity in not taking full advantage of their British setting and tapping more famous British comedians. Surely Dudley Moore would have been game. Or David Niven. Or any of the Pythons (that don’t already appear).
If it’s calming chuckles you seek, The Great Muppet Caper points you to the door and to come back another time. This is a film for guffaws. For breathless, wild abandon. Henson had many interesting and expansive ideas for Muppets and for other puppet performances, but here he’s keeping it close to the Vaudeville spirit in which The Muppet Show originally lives. While Henson would continue to act as the voice and puppeteer of Kermit until his death in 1990, he was creatively, in 1981, already moving into more expansive, more ambitious puppet-based projects. He would go on to make The Dark Crystal in 1982, to create Fraggle Rock in 1983, and to work with musicians in Rocky Mountain Holiday with John Denver (also ’83) and David Bowie in Labyrinth (1986). Henson’s last major project was the short-lived 1988 TV series The Storyteller.
The Great Muppet Caper may not be as hefty or as ambitious as some of Henson’s later projects but it does bring us to the anarchy we once had from the Muppets and from Henson’s elastic, creative mind. Come on by, be sure to drink something sugary, and lose yourself in the chaos.