Muppets 101: The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Jessica Sowards

“It’s a movie…staring everybody…and YOU!” Well, maybe not exactly you, but at least all of those beloved Muppet characters! Following up with the success of The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper was released in 1981. In the first movie, the Muppets told their story and depicted themselves. This time around, the Muppets are actors. This introduces an interesting side to the Muppet films. I propose that there exist two types of Muppet movies. In some films, they portray themselves while, in others, they are merely actors. These two types of Muppet films are linked by the first film where they exist as themselves as characters and also depict themselves in a movie chronicling their rise to fame.

In The Great Muppet Caper, Fozzie and Kermit play twin brothers who are reporters for The Daily Chronicle. Gonzo is a photographer for the paper. In a desperate attempt to save their jobs, Fozzie, Kermit, and Gonzo aim to solve the mystery of who stole fashion designer and socialite Lady Holiday’s (Diana Rigg) diamond necklace. Unfortunately, the three have mistaken Miss Piggy for Lady Holiday! Meanwhile, Miss Piggy is stretched thin as she tries to keep Kermit in the dark about her true identity and fight off the romantic advances of Lady Holiday’s brother, Nicky Holiday (Charles Grodin). Kermit finally learns of Miss Piggy’s humble identity when Nicky Holiday, the real thief, frames her. It is up to Kermit and the Muppet crew to clear Miss Piggy by catching Nicky and his super model gang red handed when they attempt to steal Lady Holiday’s baseball diamond from the Mallory Gallery.

This movie is a personal favorite of mine. With Jim Henson directing, it seemed to have a good balance between story, Muppet gags, and puppetry innovation. The most technically difficult and ambitious scenes seem to revolve around musical numbers, making them a bit more subtle and less in your face than the previous film. After Kermit rode a bike in The Muppet Movie, Henson had to set the bar a little higher. This time, a new and extended bicycle riding scene included a musical number, Kermit attempting tricks to woo Miss Piggy, and the entire Muppet gang joining in on the bike riding fun.

“Miss Piggy’s Fantasy” is a wonderful and entertaining scene in which Miss Piggy sings and swims! She is even joined by backup singers and synchronized swimmers. At a time before CGI was commonplace, it was fairly miraculous to see a puppet swim seamlessly and even have air bubbles jetting out of its nose to add to the illusion of the character being truly real instead of being made of foam and felt. The bike riding and swimming scenes were fantastic, but they were done in large production numbers. These effects complimented the larger than life numbers, but were neither boastful nor distracting. They seemed to blend easily in the movie. 

This movie also contains a few subtle gems to keep an eye out for. They may even warrant rewinding or pausing the movie for a moment. Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo perform “Stepping Out with a Star” as Kermit prepares for his date with Miss Piggy and it includes a very short portion of Kermit’s shadow dancing on the wall. It only lasts for a moment, but it matched “the real” Kermit’s moves perfectly. Another neat bit to watch out for is two very brief shots of Miss Piggy in which she is not a puppet at all. It is actually someone dressed up like her in a couple of shots. It is kind of surreal once you realize it is a person dressed to look like a puppet.

One point of contention for me in this film would be the cameos. I sort of have a love/hate relationship with the cameos from this movie. It was shot and takes place in England. One obvious comedic choice for a cameo is John Cleese. The best part of his cameo is that he plays his character completely straight and as a British gentleman. A pig wearing makeup, a fancy dress, and styled hair appears in his home and he suggests local hotspots. There are a few other cameos, but, to be brutally honest, they were not as effective for me and I am sure will be equally lost on future generations. The remaining sparse cameos include Jack Warden, Peter Falk, Robert Morley, and Peter Ustinov.

Besides Cleese, the cameos I and any other Muppet fiend would be excited about are all Muppet-centric. Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street appears. His appearance could be just a nod at the Henson connection or, in the antagonistic spirit of Oscar the Grouch, he could be in this film to chuckle at, as he would say, “That overgrown Turkey” Big Bird who appeared in the first movie. Muppeteers Jerry Nelson (and his real life daughter), Frank Oz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, and even the big cheese himself, Jim Henson, make on screen appearances. As a Muppet fan, it is always exciting to see a Muppet performer on screen instead of hiding out of sight behind a character. What the film lacks in mainstream cameos, it more than makes up for Muppeteer cameos for the diehard fans.

Whether you are a Muppet addict, film buff, or just looking for a smart, family-friendly film, The Great Muppet Caper is a classic and worth a thoughtful viewing. Jim Henson and the Muppet family certainly matured and grew as entertainers since the first movie and it is clearly reflected here. I give it a hearty and well deserved four out of five rubber chickens!

When Jessica Sowards is not fighting crime, she can be found watching almost any movie that comes her way whether it be good or bad. She is obsessed with The Muppets and knows a little too much trivia from sitcoms of the 1980s. 

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