Following two years after the successful first feature, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper was Jim Henson's second foray into film with the denizens of television's "The Muppet Show." This time directing, he gets a sort of mixed bag as a result. Not a bad movie by any means (fun for adults and children like most Muppet films), it feels more like a well done made-for-TV movie than a motion picture. Perhaps part of the problem is trying to follow up something that could not help but set the standard for anything that would follow.
While there seem fewer songs and they take less importance to the story, a few are quite good (the song "The First Time It Happens" still managed an Academy Award nomination). Fewer celebrity cameos this time around, but the John Cleese sequence is well worth the wait (in additions to the ones mentioned below, look for Jack Warden as the newspaper editor and Peter Falk as a man in the park). On the whole, it seems like a much smaller movie with a narrower focus (granted that the subject makes this tendency necessary to some extent).
Another difference (not bad, just different, and making for some laughs) is more humor based on the characters acknowledging that it's a movie, with asides and speaking to the camera and discussing acting (at one point Kermit the Frog accuses Miss Piggy of "hamming it up"), something that was a smaller part of the first filmthough this one is missing the movie within a movie structure. This starts at the beginning with a parody of the MGM roaring lion trademarkonly it's Animal, who proceeds to eat the scenery he's sticking his head through. The opening credits are Kermit, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo in a hot air balloon commenting on the credits (and discussing plummeting). Kermit is asked: "Nobody reads those names anyway, do they?" He answers (as Henson's name appears on the screen) "Sure, they all have families."
"A movie...starring everybody and me"
Credits done, it continues reminding the audience that it's a movie with a musical number on a crowded city street that not only promises all the wonderful things that one will see in the movie but gives ample time for gags and slapstick. It also introduces them as characters: the three are newspaper reporters (Fozzie complete with the "Press" card in his hat) and Gonzo doing the photography. It also introduces the two main human characters: rich fashion designer Lady Holiday (ex-Avenger Diana Rigg) and her no good, gambling brother (his office says "Irresponsible Parasite" on the door) Nicky, played by Charles Grodin. Additionally, were learn that he is a thief as we see him put on a disguise and steal her jewels.
The theft is missed by the trio (who are taking a picture of a chicken) and while the other papers are doing headlines about the robbery, they submit one about identical twins coming to a big city news roomone running gag is that the brothers (Kermit and Fozzie) are identical twins, something some of the people seem to actually believe, some not (interestingly, a photo of their father is a sort of green Fozzie lookalike). Trying to save their job, they go to England to interview the victim about the crime. And away they go....
Welcome to England
When you fly 9th class, you fly with the animals. You also get tossed out the door of the plane if it isn't stopping at your destination (you fly 9th class if your paper isn't footing the bill). Anyway, the three are soon on a bus and traveling to their hotel: a man on a bench (Robert Morley) thumbed through a guidebook for "places you can park your carcass," suggesting "bus terminals, riverbanks, the Happiness Hotel." They chose the latter.
Of course, all the Muppet gang (none with fake accentsin fact, no American actors used fake accents) live in the run-down, fleabag, rat trap where everyone is broke and down on his/her/its luck. Some changes have been made since the first film, the guitar player of the Electric Mayhem (Janice) is actually playing a guitar (Les Paul) instead of a bass and Zoot (the sax player) seems not to be under the influence of one or more legal or illegal substances. The three fit right in.
As Lady Holiday prepares for the big fashion show, Miss Piggy arrives looking for a modeling job (she's hired as a receptionist). In typical fashion, Kermit shows up for an interview and believes her to be Holiday. She, of course, plays along, as they both suffer one of those inexplicable interspecies attractions. They plan dinner at 17 Highbrow Street (a made-up address). Though the most important part of this segment comes when the audience finally gets the answer to the age-old question of whether Kermit wears boxers or briefs (you know, when he's wearing pants).
She needs to enter the house to pull off her lie, leading to one of the most amusing parts of the movie. John Cleese as a bone dry stiff upper lip kind of gentleman, living in a loveless, boring, apathetic marriage (but on friendly terms)sort of an older Basil Fawlty, under sedation, after he finally gave up and gave in to his fate. Lines like "a pig climbing up the outside of the house, dear" are read as straight lines and when he stalks the two to where they are hiding in a closet, he merely helps them by offering the name of a good restaurant.
Fozzie and Gonzo tag along to dinner (the man with a beard that Gonzo takes a photo of is Jim Henson). Fozzie drinking champagne: "You know if you put enough sugar in this stuff, it tastes like ginger ale." Meanwhile Lady Holiday (decked out in another diamond necklace) and Nicky arrive. As odd as Kermit's fixation is Nicky'she falls for the Pig big time. Kermit's dance with her turns into a large Busby Berkeley production ending with Nicky dancing with herright before the lights go out and the necklace is stolen (by him and his three model accomplices: Carla, Darla, and Marla). During the commotion, Kermit realizes her deception and runs out, leaving him with a glass slipper.
Gonzo gets a picture of the theft, implicating Nicky, but it gets ruined (when a hotel has only one rest room, don't use it as a darkroom). Later the couple fights, then makes up in typical Hollywood fashion. This time Henson outdoes the previous movie's Kermit on a bicycle scene with multiple Muppets on bikes, going at different speeds and doing circles. Still quite astonishing, though not like it was back in 1981.
The day of the big fashion show, one of Nicky's models fakes an injury to get Miss Piggy into the show (leading to an even bigger, more elaborate Busby Berkeley routine, including swimming). She falls into a fountain and the robe that Nicky brings her just happens to have the missing jewels in it. She's taken away to jail ("Will you be hiring more pigs?" "Well I shall certainly think twice about it).
Finally a caper
Something a caper film (especially one with the word in its title) must have. And like most caper films, it involves a jewel heist. The target? Lady Holiday's fabulous "Baseball Diamond" (in the display, it rests in a catcher's mitt) on display at the Mallory Gallery. Gonzo learns of the plan and the intrepid heroes of the Happiness Hotel plan to thwart the thieves, thus springing the Pig from the Pokey. Much time is expended paralleling the preparations of the two groups (the thieves and the Muppets). Nicky and his crew are all professional and high tech, the Muppets read off a checklist with things like wax lips, Frisbees, and yo-yos (most of which they don't have). They do have a number of Groucho glasses for disguises.
While the thieves simply drive around the building to the "Tradesmen's Entrance," the Muppets first try to have Animal chew through the iron bars of the gate before using the pizza delivery ploy to sneak past the guard. While that goes on, Piggy makes a jail break and tries to hitchhike her way to the gallery. Peter Ustinov is a cement truck driver who refuses to pick her up. She tosses him out of the cab into a pile of trashnext to a trashcan containing Oscar the Grouch from "Sesame Street" (Ustinov: "What are you doing here?" Grouch: "A very brief cameo." "Ustinov: "Me too."). After some CB radio jokes (already a few years too late to be topical), she runs out of gas only to have a motorcycle (helmet included) fall off the back of another truck. Soon she's being chased by the police.
Both groups collide in inspired Muppet chaos as they attempt to stop the theft of the diamond. It leads to a game of keep away with the (Baseball) diamond worthy of the old Tom and Jerry or Warner Brothers cartoons. Unfortunately, the thieves get the upper hand and threaten to shoot Kermit. Of course, the Pig saves the day by crashing the motorcycle through a stained glass window, raining glass and swine down upon the would-be diamond thieves. The police take them away, Nicky still professing his love for the Pig.
Heroes, the whole gang plans to return to the United Statesthe same way they came to England: in the belly of a plane. And "landing" the same way (only with parachutes, this time).
Stick around for the end of the credits, Gonzo has a little something for you. I'm still waiting for my photo....
(Sources: numerous viewings since it was released in theaters; current DVD release)