The Muppets have been America’s sweethearts for quite some time. But as much as we love them, it doesn’t equate to them having great full length features all the time. 1979’s The Muppet Movie was lightning in a bottle, which was borrowed for 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan and Jason Segel’s 2011 revival The Muppets. The TV series are largely fantastic, but the Muppets never did well “playing” characters other than themselves.
In the Jim Henson-directed 1981 film The Great Muppet Caper, we see the gang head to England to solve a robbery. In fact, I’m not really sure how that’s a good enough reason to send the characters across the pond, but we’re here and we now have to deal with it.
Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo play fictionalized versions of themselves: investigative journalists for a newspaper in the United States. In London, they are to meet with Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg), a snooty fashion designer who has been the victim of a jewel robbery. Upon arriving at her office, Miss Piggy, who’s auditioning to be one of Lady Holiday’s new models, poses as the fashion designer because (I think) she wants to impress Kermit. This occupies 45 minutes of the movie’s conflict and is resolved in 4 seconds.
Charles Grodin plays Lady Holiday’s freeloading brother, and we pretty much know right away that he’s the person stealing all the jewels. Kermit gets the lead early on as well, but this, of course, doesn’t catalyze any plot points. It’s a mystery movie with no mystery.
The story is not interesting at all, and we have a hard time connecting with our main characters, which, up to this point, we’d never had an issue with before. Kermit is at his least sympathetic and Fozzie is at his most underutilized. Henson makes sure to feature everybody’s favorites, but there’s such little inspiration here that nothing quite works.
There are great stretches of this film where we’re unsure what the plot even is, or if it’s even still there. We look for some semblance of fluidity with the sequence of events, but it’s always frustratingly stagnant.
The film has its moments, even several of them. However, those moments never seem to add up to anything of value. There’s one in particular after Kermit figures out that Grodin is going to be robbing a museum, and so he and Fozzie and Gonzo and literally 20 other Muppets sneak into the museum at night in order to catch the thieves in the act, but we’re unsure if it’s comedic brilliance or amazingly ludicrous filmmaking.
The comedy up until then definitely tries to conjure up some entertainment value. There’s a fun running gag where Kermit and Fozzie are identical twins, where everyone keeps mixing them up. Other jokes possess that usual Muppet self-awareness, as well as a magnificent cameo by John Cleese. But we can’t help but think it may all just be in vain.
However, as short as the film is on plot, it’s big on theatrics. The Great Muppet Caper is very much in the vein of the escapist spectacles MGM would pump out in the 1950s with its emphasis on production and musical numbers over plot. Thankfully the numbers here are spectacular, but Henson has never been a great director when it comes to long-running story arcs.
Perhaps if this were the real Kermit or the real Fozzie instead of alt-Kermit and alt-Fozzie, the movie would have been at least grounded in something more along the lines of what we expect with the Muppets. Shockingly, this wouldn’t be the last time they would play different characters (although this is the last time during Henson’s life), but it works even less in those instances.
We can still very much see the iconic Jim Henson’s magic at work here. Whether it be an impressive bike riding sequence or an underwater Busby Berkeley knockoff, he continues to awe us with his brilliance. It’s just so strange that a genius who can craft such theatrically desirable sequences can’t pair them with better storytelling.