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“Bears wear hats”: “The Great Muppet Caper” at 40

The Great Muppet Caper

Kermit and company’s second big-screen outing is a hodgepodge comedy partially redeemed by the great Charles Grodin.

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Over the course of its original five-year run, The Muppet Show proved to be a consistently inventive and endearing enterprise that offered slapstick to satire. It was driven by a cast of characters who embodied a full range of recognizable human emotions and ideals despite the fact that they were, well, Muppets. When the characters made the inevitable leap to the big screen with 1979’s The Muppet Movie, fans young and old were delighted to discover that while the film was obviously bigger and more elaborate, it retained the show’s warmth, humor, and likability.

Unfortunately, this didn’t prove to be the case with the second Muppet movie that came out two years later, The Great Muppet Caper. Although not a terrible movie by any sense of the imagination, it’s one of the lesser Muppet films. Instead of creating a film that, like its predecessor, was tailored to the characters’ unique personalities, it feels at times as if someone pulled an old script off a shelf and replaced the existing characters with the likes of Kermit, Fozzie, and Miss Piggy without tailoring the material for them. As a result, the film is somewhat reminiscent of Room Service, the one Marx Brothers movie based on material not developed for them. The characters are there, but something just doesn’t feel right.

In retrospect, the sense of detachment one gets while watching The Great Muppet Caper isn’t that surprising. As The Muppet Show was winding down production for good, Jim Henson was making plans to break off into new creative areas and eventually settled on two ambitious projects. One was a new television series that would eventually become Fraggle Rock, the other a puppet-based fantasy film titled The Dark Crystal that he planned to direct.

The Great Muppet Caper

Even in the early stages, it was becoming clear that The Dark Crystal was going to be a complicated and expensive endeavor that’d be even riskier since Henson had never directed a feature before. At the same time, people were still clamoring for more of the Muppets. With that, a deal was struck. If Henson agreed to direct a new Muppet movie first, he’d then be allowed to make The Dark Crystal.

Eventually cobbled together by four credited writers, the story finds Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo as not-so-crack investigative reporters who somehow fail to notice the jewel robbery going on right behind them. In order to try to make things right, the three set off to London to investigate. They interview the victim, rich fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg). Kermit later meets Lady Holiday’s newly hired receptionist, aspiring model Miss Piggy, and mistakes her for her boss, a ruse she’s willing to keep going as she has fallen in love at first sight.

As it turns out, the robbery was actually pulled off by Lady Holiday’s ne’er-do-well brother Nicky (Charles Grodin) and his fashion model accomplices. They frame Miss Piggy for another theft before plotting the robbery of Lady Holiday’s most precious jewel, and it’s up to Kermit and the other Muppets to stop them and clear Miss Piggy’s good name. All the while, there are the expected cameos from the likes of Peter Ustinov, Peter Falk, Robert Morley, and John Cleese (whose bit is one of the film’s highlights).

But the very setup here is why The Great Muppet Caper doesn’t work. Instead of a story that took advantage of the richly drawn characters we’d come to know and love over, it gives us a knockabout farce that, with its countless instances of self-referential humor, feels more like a lesser Bob Hope vehicle. Nothing really seems to connect to anything else. Other than Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo, the other Muppets are too often little more than window dressing. Even the songs for the most part have such an anonymous feel that they could’ve been easily dropped without causing much havoc.

Instead of a story that took advantage of the richly drawn characters we’d come to know and love over, it gives us a knockabout farce that … feels more like a lesser Bob Hope vehicle.

Perhaps realizing the film was somewhat lacking in heart, Henson tried to goose things up with a few moments of razzle-dazzle. In The Muppet Movie, the sight of Kermit riding a bicycle astonished viewers. Here, Henson ups the game with a sequence in which both Kermit and Miss Piggy go bicycling before being joined by all of the other Muppets for a promenade in the park. The film then tops this with a massive homage to old Esther Williams musicals with Miss Piggy leading a choreographed underwater number. In both cases, the technical aspects are undeniably impressive, but that’s about it. They just come across as expensive self-indulgences that didn’t add much to the film.

Lest you think I’m being too critical, I’ll say that when I saw The Great Muppet Caper in the summer of 1981, my nine-year-old self left disappointed. Even a kid could tell it was less special than the genius that was The Muppet Movie. It felt more like the silly kiddie entertainment the Muppets countered in the first place. And yet, The Great Muppet Caper is far from the weakest Muppet film. (That title belongs to Muppets Most Wanted, another film that inexplicably places the characters in the midst of an anonymous European caper.) It’s the legitimately brilliant performance from Grodin that, while also being the film’s saving grace, would be one of his best turns.

The role is as silly as the movie, but Grodin throws himself into it completely, selling the absurdity and anguish. With the possible exception of Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Grodin’s work here is arguably the one instance in a Muppet movie where the MVP performance comes from one of the human co-stars. While the movie may have faded from memory over the years, his work in it clearly continued to resonate if the tributes that popped up in the wake of his passing last month are any indication.

In those career summations, he was duly and expectedly celebrated for his work in such classics as The Heartbreak Kid, Heaven Can Wait, Ishtar, and Midnight Run, but a surprisingly high number of these tributes also cited his work here as a prime example of his genius as an actor. In the end, The Great Muppet Caper may not ultimately work as a movie, but it always hits whenever Grodin is on the screen. Even a kid could tell you that.

The Great Muppet Caper Trailer:

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CategoriesAnniversaries
Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.