The Great Muppet Caper

(1981) *** 1/2 G
98 min. Associated Film Distribution. Director: Jim Henson. Cast: Diana Rigg, Charles Grodin, John Cleese, Robert Morley, Peter Ustinov, Dave Goelz.

The Muppets returned to the big screen, this time under creator Jim Henson's direction, in The Great Muppet Caper. Unlike the post-Henson literary parodies, The Great Muppet Caper placed the Muppet menagerie into genre scenarios ("cub reporter makes good," "jewel heist," "travel adventure," and "Busby Berkeley musical") to create an original story. As before and since, the Muppets overtly acknowledge their role as "actors" aware of the script and even the opening credits, which Kermit the Frog (Henson), Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), and Gonzo (Dave Goelz) read in wonderment from a hot-air balloon.

When they touch down, they launch into the first of seven original songs: "Hey a Movie!" It's a boffo, feel-good start, promising, "There'll be spectacle/There'll be fantasy/There'll be derring do/And stuff like you would never see..." In fact, right under the noses of the three Muppets—who hasten to identify themselves as reporters—elegant fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg) becomes the victim of a jewel robbery. Promising their editor (humorously harried Jack Warden) that they'll repent for missing the story by solving the crime, the gang heads to London by ninth-class air freight.

After settling into the depressingly decrepit Happiness Hotel (introduced in an ironically sprightly number), Kermit mistakes lowly receptionist Miss Piggy (Oz) for Lady Holiday. Kermit gets an adorable top-hat-and-tails song in "Steppin' Out With a Star," which anticipates his nightclub date with Piggy. The nightclub is the setting for a couple of Berkeley-esque song-and-dance numbers featuring Piggy, male and female choruses, and a fountain (choreography by Anita Mann).

Piggy's mistaken identity is cleared up when the real Lady Holiday is robbed once again, by her layabout brother Nicky (Charles Grodin) and his gang of supermodels (their ultimate goal? to steal Lady Holiday's Baseball Diamond from the well-armed Mallory Gallery).

If The Great Muppet Caper has a flaw, it's that Henson allows one too many Miss Piggy numbers, but with the delightful music and lyrics of Joe Raposo (the Sesame Street vet who penned "Bein' Green," among others), what to cut? "Piggy's Fantasy"? "First Time It Happens"? "Couldn't We Ride"? Both "Couldn't We Ride?" and the action climax up the ante from The Muppet Movie's Kermit-on-a-bike scene. First, the Muppet ensemble bikes through a park (thanks to a combination of animatronics, marionette techniques, and more traditional Muppeteering). Later, Piggy rides to the rescue on a motorcycle, thanks in part to a petite stuntwoman in costume.

In fact, the expendable number is a ho-hum Electric Mayhem pounder called "Night Life," but otherwise, The Great Muppet Caper is a brisk and consistently funny family entertainment. The screenwriting teams of Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jerry Juhl & Jack Rose deliver punchline after ticklish punchline and a full complement of masterful running gags (like the absurd notion that Kermit and Fozzie are twins). Consider this ironic exchange about inarticulate, head-banging drummer Animal:

Kermit: What's wrong with the drummer? He looks a little crazed.

Zoot: Oh, he's just upset about missing the Monet exhibit at the National Gallery.

Animal: Renoir! Renoir!

Henson again attracted a fantastic selection of cameo players for funny appearances, particularly Peter Falk (unbilled) and John Cleese (paired with the Margaret Dumont-esque Joan Sanderson, not long after her memorable guest turn on Fawlty Towers). The human stars pull their weight, too: Rigg and Grodin ham it up for all they're worth, which is plenty. In what may be the film's most hilarious gag, Grodin serenades Piggy by lip-syncing to an Allan Jones-styled vocal. When Piggy learns he's a cad, she blurts, "You know what? You can't even sing! Your voice was dubbed!"

Henson understood, intuitively, that the Muppets worked best as underdogs (or underfrogs), second-class citizens who had to clamber and scramble up to the level of humans. No Muppet social-climbs more ruthlessly than Miss Piggy, and Oz gives his finest porker performance in The Great Muppet Caper.

[Note: Don't exit the film without watching the amusing closing credits.]

[For Groucho's interview with Frank Oz, click here, and for his interview with Dave Goelz, click here.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 11/29/2005

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

The Great Muppet Caper returns to DVD in a nice-looking transfer comparable to the earlier Columbia/Tri-Star disc. Disney's Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition disc may lose two minutes and twenty seconds of "Muppetisms" (promo spots not contemporary to the film) from the earlier disc, but Disney adds a brand-new featurette: "Pepe Profiles Presents—Miss Piggy: The Diva Who Would Not Be Denied" (5:40). As on the other 50th Anniversary Edition discs, the Muppet performers crack a few lame jokes, but Bill Barretta is endlessly funny as Pepe the King Prawn.

Previews include Lady and the Tramp (2 Disc Special Edition), Disney's MovieSurfers hyping upcoming theatrical releases The Wild and Shaggy Dog, The Muppet Show: Season One Special Edition, and an ad for RadioDisney. The dearth of bonus features specific to the film makes the new disc a bit disappointing. Perhaps one day the film will get a proper special edition that removes the extraneous fullscreen transfer to make way for a full battery of special features.
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Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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