Have you ever gone back and watched a movie from your childhood as an adult and been walloped in the face with the realization that it crafted a huge chunk of your personality? I hope so, because that will make what I’m about to say next make much more sense: I watched The Great Muppet Caper on Disney+ recently and, hoo boy, was that an eye-opener for the grown-up version of me. My whole life, I have loved heist movies and weirdo absurd comedies. The Great Muppet Caper is both of those things, somehow. There’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation at play here, sure. Did I love this movie because I’ve always been wired this way? Or did watching this movie dozens of times in my formative years alter my wiring? It’s a fair question. A complex one. One I have no interest in examining more deeply. Let’s move on!
Watching it now, it’s kind of incredible it even exists. Like, I’m not entirely sure who the movie was supposed to be for? It’s a children’s movie filled with characters breaking the fourth wall more often than Fleabag. It’s got huge runs of nonsense jokes that would fit in nicely on the strangest Adult Swim creations you can imagine. There’s barely a plot, and what small amount of plot there is serves mostly as a delivery system for more nonsense jokes. I’ve been thinking about all of it a lot since I watched it again, and the best answer I’ve come up with is this: The movie was made specifically for me to enjoy at any age of my life. I feel great about it.
The time has come to talk about The Great Muppet Caper.
1. The plot of The Great Muppet Caper goes something like this: Kermit and Fozzie play newspaper reporters who travel to London with their trusted photographer, Gonzo, to investigate a string of jewel robberies perpetrated by Nicky Holiday (Charles Grodin), who a) is the sleazy playboy brother of London fashion icon Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg); b) frames Miss Piggy for the crimes; and c) plans to steal his sister’s most valuable possession, a baseball-sized diamond called “The Baseball Diamond,” with the assistance of three fashion models in trench coats. I would challenge you to find a better plot for any movie, ever, but we have entirely too much to get to for me to send you on a wild goose chase. Let’s just go ahead and agree that there isn’t one.
2. “But how,” you ask, “do three Muppets become newspaper reporters who fly to London to investigate a string of jewel robberies?” Excellent question. Allow me to present an incomplete list of things that happen in the first 15 minutes of the movie:
- Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo ride in a hot air balloon during the opening credits, which they comment on as the credits appear on the screen, marking the first of many, many times characters in the movie absolutely obliterate the fourth wall
- There is a huge musical number titled “Hey, A Movie,” in which various Muppets dance through the streets and explain the plot of the film you are about to watch, and which ends with the first robbery of Lady Holiday’s jewels
- Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo are called to their editor’s office, where they are fired for missing the huge robbery story entirely and instead running a large photo of themselves on the front page under the headline “Identical Twins Join Chronicle Staff”
- They fly to London on their own dime in the luggage area of an airplane and are heaved out an open door over England, where they safely crash land in a pond
Perhaps you noticed something odd in those bullet points. Perhaps it was the phrase “identical twins.” This was not a mistake on my part. In The Great Muppet Caper, Kermit (a frog) and Fozzie (a bear) play identical twin brothers. Here, look:
It makes no sense, in any way. I could not possibly love it more.
3. This gets us to an important point, one I touched on in the introduction: This movie is powerfully weird, bordering on absurd. Again, Kermit and Fozzie play twins. Nicky and Lady Holiday are siblings, but Nicky has an American accent and his sister has the most British accent you’ve ever heard. Characters are constantly commenting on the fact that they’re in a movie. Kermit prepares for a date with Miss Piggy by shaving, despite the fact that he is a frog puppet who does not have whiskers. At one point, Kermit and Miss Piggy stop an important scene right in the middle to discuss whether Miss Piggy is over-acting. Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo stay in a dilapidated glorified hostel called The Happiness Hotel, and the cab driver who takes them there, Beauregard, asks them what room they are staying in, and when they say they’re on the second floor, he replies “Oh, I’m sorry. I can only take you as far as the lobby” before crashing through the front door.
At another point, Miss Piggy is thrust into the role of runway model at Lady Holiday’s big fashion show and proceeds to have a full-on musical daydream that features an extended synchronized swimming performance. Yes, Miss Piggy swims. Underwater. It is not the most impressive and confusing thing a Muppet does in this movie. We’ll get to that. But first, proof.
The Muppets are chaotic and good.
4. The Great Muppet Caper is, in many ways, a showcase for Miss Piggy. She shows up at Lady Holiday’s door with dreams of becoming a model, gets hired as an assistant, and within moments finds herself in a mistaken identity ruse of her own creation that starts with Kermit thinking she is Lady Holiday, features her falling butt-first into a trash can, and ends with her agreeing to let him pick her up for a date at a house that does not belong to her. Later in the movie, after she’s been framed for the jewel theft, she breaks out of prison by pulling the bars apart with her bare hands. She also does this thing where she kind of bounces when she gets excited. All of the Muppets do this, technically, but none of them do it better.
5. Speaking of things that no one does better, I promise all of you that you have never seen anyone enjoy playing a lecherous sleaze more than Charles Grodin does in this movie. As much as? Maybe. Possibly. But not more. He looks like he’s having so much fun. It reminds me a lot of Hugh Grant’s performance in Paddington 2, just the acknowledgment that this — playing a human villain opposite stuffed/animated beacons of light and joy — is all very silly and therefore there’s no reason to do one iota less than the absolute most in every single scene. Here is a GIF of him dancing away from a table before scurrying off. I promise you he brings this exact energy to every scene. It’s delightful.
6. The Great Muppet Caper is littered with the stupidest and most perfect little jokes you’ve ever heard. My favorite is the one where someone references catching the bad guys red-handed and another person replies “What color are his hands now?” It’s so aggressively dumb and pointless and they do it three times. They make this exact joke three times! It somehow gets funnier each time, too. It’s like the people involved are calling our bluff. Like they’re saying “Oh, you groaned at that one? Well, we’re going to keep doing it until you laugh.” This kind of commitment to a stupid bit takes courage. I’m so proud of them.
7. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Gonzo, my favorite Muppet.
What a madman. What a lunatic. He spends this whole movie taking pictures of chickens and birds for reasons that are never explained, and launching his whole body into the street to get a taxi to stop (“It’s great when it works”), and just generally inserting anarchy into every scene. It’s one of the many reasons I enjoy A Muppet Christmas Carol so much. Whoever looked at that classic story and said “Let’s have the blue maniac narrate the whole thing in character as Charles Dickens” deserves a big smooch right on the face.
8. Okay, this is where we discuss the bicycles. Look at the Muppets riding bicycles.
This did not register for me when I was a child, but… how? Look at this. How? There is a real answer to this question that you can find with enough Googling. It involves pulleys and radio controls and a million other things that are hilariously complicated for a movie about a stuffed frog and bear thwarting a diamond heist. But my favorite answer to the question comes from the Muppet Movie director James Frawley, who also coordinated a scene with Muppets on bicycles.
Every time I show the film — whether it’s to film students at USC or UCLA or I’m going to a festival — that’s always the first question: How did Kermit ride the bicycle? And my stock answer is: I put him on a three-wheeler until he got his balance, and then I put him on the two-wheeler.
And if you really want to know more about it, if I can’t convince you to just live with the illusion that Muppets can ride bicycles through a London park while singing, then I guess I can direct you to this paragraph from a truly incredible webpage: The “Bicycles” entry on muppet dot fandom dot com.
Although marionette devices continued to be used in this sequence, the process was simplified when multiple bicycles were in the same shot. Two bicycles could be connected together with a stiff rod from axle to axle, eliminating the need to hold the bicycles up and enabling them both to be pulled from in front. In shots of the whole Muppet gang, the entire mass of bicycles — all wired together — was pulled by a fleet of over-sized tricycles and bicycles, ridden by Brian Henson and other performers. Another innovation in this sequence was the use of radio controls to move the characters’ mouths in long shots.
It’s not quite as informative as the page about Kermit and Miss Piggy’s offspring, but it’s also substantially less upsetting. A fair trade-off.
9. Cameos are littered throughout this movie, although some of them might be a little dated for anyone under 40 to catch. John Cleese plays the clueless owner of the house that Miss Piggy crashes for her date with Kermit, and it is a blast. At one point he refers to Kermit as “a lizard” and it made me think of this iconic tweet.
Does #CryingLeBron join other meme greats like #tealizard, #CryingJordan and #smockin / the mask? Tweet us! pic.twitter.com/4xoDahAk1Q
— Good Morning America (@GMA) June 21, 2016
But the best cameo, by far, is the uncredited one by Peter Falk, Columbo himself, who slides up to Kermit on a park bench and delivers a monologue for the ages.
Again, The Great Muppet Caper is such a weird movie. I adore it in ways I will never be able to explain.
10. The ending, in brief. Kermit and the other Muppets show up at the museum to try to stop Nicky Holiday from stealing the Baseball Diamond. Their plan goes sideways in a few different ways. Things look bleak. Nicky and the models have them cornered. But then… what’s that? What’s that rumbling in the distance?
I suppose I could sit here and explain to you how exactly Miss Piggy ended up on a stunt motorcycle that crashed through a plate glass window and allowed her to disarm Charles Grodin and save the day, but, like, why? Why would I do that? Just go watch The Great Muppet Caper, again, with your jaded grown-up eyes, and marvel at the loosely-controlled absurdity of the whole experiment. It’s barely 90 minutes long. I assure you that you don’t have anything better to do.