THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER was released in the summer of 1981. This was five years after The Muppet Show started, and just a few months after it ended. Given that The Muppet Show ended at the height of its popularity (Jim Henson wanted it to end on a high note rather than watch it inevitably fall from grace) the film was a welcome visit with old friends to contemporary audiences. It also solidified the Muppets’ transition from television to film. No longer was their popularity due solely to having a weekly variety show; they were movie stars.
THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER picks up right where THE MUPPET MOVIE ended. At the end of THE MUPPET MOVIE, the gang of Muppets have made their way to Hollywood, signed the standard rich and famous contract, and shot their film. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER begins with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo doing a musical number announcing their next film. This is shortly after they read the opening credits, wondering what B.S.C. stands for (it is British Society of Cinematographers—the film was made in England). As they are singing rejoicing their next film, they introduce that they will be the stars of the film. A menacing Charles Grodin also comes through the frame and mysteriously says that the film is staring him too, but more on that later.
Herein lays the focus of my appreciation of the layers of THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER. The intertextuality and the frequent breaking of the fourth wall is what we expect from the Muppets and what they do well.
The Muppet Show was not a straightforward variety show; it was a television show within a show. Each week, viewers got to see not only the skits and musical numbers that were on the program, but they saw the backstage hijinks and Miss Piggy’s diva tantrums. These two worlds allowed for two corresponding layers of narrative. First, there is the actual show itself. There can be music and humor on stage by the performers. Beyond that we have the show about the show, which allows for show business in-jokes, and the pleasure of seeing the belly of the theater where the Muppets get to let loose and act like themselves.
THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER establishes this thematic continuation by being a film within a film. After the Muppets have sung that they are making a movie, they are transported to their newspaper editor’s office and given the assignment of flying to London to investigate the theft of Lady Holiday’s necklace. Just as their freight crates are dropped off in England, the gang finds a cheapo hotel that is chock full of Muppets and they set off in their investigation. Meanwhile, Miss Piggy meets the aforementioned Lady Holiday and talks her into giving her a job. At the very brief job interview, the Lady goes on and on about her leeching, lowlife brother and essentially gives us the entire backstory for the film. Though this inexplicable rant would be perfectly at home in a James Bond film—the villain really has no reason to explain his entire diabolical plot to Bond—it seems odd here. When Piggy asks why she is getting all of the information after just meeting the Lady, Lady Holiday replies with, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.” The flippant tones of Lady’s Holiday’s resignation to the plot device combined with Piggy’s reception of the admission, sets the audience into the continuing intertextuality of the rest of the film.
My second favorite reference to the film within a film comes right after my favorite musical number. Miss Piggy must step in to be a runway model for Lady Holiday’s latest collection, after a model twists her ankle. Nicky Holiday (Charles Grodin as the Lady’s thieving brother) falls in love with Piggy and then proceeds to sing an over-the-top number as Piggy’s catwalk turns into a water ballet dream sequence. The grand number is straight out of a Busby Berkeley film and it places Piggy onto the literal pedestal she always believed she deserved. When reality comes crashing back, Piggy has been framed by Nicky for stealing Lady Holiday’s diamonds, and Nicky is torn between his new found love for Piggy and his criminal desire to pin the blame on the pig.
As a jab at Nicky, Piggy tells the audience that Nicky is not a good performer, and in fact his singing voice was dubbed. Though Grodin’s hilarious over-the-top lip synch made this apparent during the musical number, the fact that Piggy resorts to outing him as an inadequate performer as a slice of revenge highlights the absurdity. Piggy makes a comment in the film within a film about the actual film. While this does not get her out of the arrest, it clearly makes her feel better and it makes me laugh.
Any one of the Muppet films creates layers of appreciation like this and references the real world within the diegetic world of the film. However, I have always appreciated the way THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER laces these references throughout the film, without sacrificing the plot of the caper or the aura of the Muppets themselves.