In The Great Muppet Caper, Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear play identical twins. At one point, their newspaper editor (oh, we’ll get to all that) shows us a picture of their father, a hybrid-looking — and disturbingly so — green Fozzie-Kermit mashup. Watching as an adult, this is a mildly amusing running joke, but it was confusing as a child. As a child, everything about The Great Muppet Caper was confusing. This is probably why The Great Muppet Caper is my favorite of the Muppet movies.
I sometimes refer to The Great Muppet Caper as “The Empire Strikes Back of Muppet movies” – because, in the mid-1980s, Caper was the middle film that seemed to get overlooked amidst the nostalgia of the original The Muppet Movie and the pandering of the latest, The Muppets Take Manhattan. In The Great Muppet Caper, you’re not going to get a Liza Minnelli cameo. You’re getting a nonsensical Peter Falk appearance and you’re going to like it.
In an interview I conducted with (at the time, future Muppet star) Jason Segel for Vanity Fair back in 2011, we discussed this. Segel admits his favorite is The Muppets Take Manhattan, but says of Caper, “The Great Muppet Caper is interesting because it’s just a stand-alone story. They basically just played different characters. Kermit and Fozzie are playing twin brothers, which is hilarious… It’s very linear: There’s a crook and they’re trying to catch him and all of that stuff.”
At least with Star Wars, people eventually came around to the fact that Empire was the best movie. (In 1985, this was just as radical a position to take.) But The Great Muppet Caper has never had that kind of resurgence. Now, with The Muppets debuting a new television series tonight, it’s time to correct that.
When The Great Muppet Caper opens, Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo are being self-aware about the opening credits. This may seem pedestrian now, but at the time, this was groundbreaking stuff for a movie mostly aimed at children. Then Caper does something truly weird: The opening song tries to explain that everything we see from that point on is a movie — but it’s done in such a vague way, when, all of a sudden, Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo become newspaper reporters, it’s, again, confusing. And sure, The Muppet Movie does the whole “film within a film” trick, too, but it’s much more structured. In Caper, it’s almost tacked on as a warning, “Just forget everything you know about The Muppets, because this is probably not going to make much sense.”
In 1981, I distinctly remember leaning over to my parents in a movie theater and asking, “Wait, I thought all the Muppets were friends.” This is because, other than Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo, none of the Muppets seem to know either other. This flies in the face of every installment of The Muppet Show, which had just had its final episode three months before The Great Muppet Caper premiered. When Kermit first meets Miss Piggy, not only do they not know each other, Kermit thinks she’s somebody named Lady Holiday.
Oh, yes, the plot of The Great Muppet Caper: Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo play journalists who are fired after they report on the fact The Daily Chronicle hired them instead of reporting on the theft of Lady Holiday’s (Diana Rigg) valuable jewels, like everyone else did. This is funny because it sounds like something that would happen in 2015.
Who stole the jewels? The answer is Lady Holiday’s brother, Nicky Holiday, played by a youthful-looking Charles Grodin wearing fun socks. (It boggles my mind that somehow Grodin is 46 years old in The Great Muppet Caper.) Charles Durning made a fine antagonist for The Muppet Movie, but Charles Grodin appears to be having the time of his life in The Great Muppet Caper — eventually falling in love with Miss Piggy and attempting to best Kermit in an attempt to win her heart. There is an Esther Williams-inspired scene in which Miss Piggy dances in some sort of elaborate pool with fountains while Kermit and Grodin trade turns crooning at her.
Strangely, I still own paraphernalia from The Great Muppet Caper. McDonald’s issued four commemorative glasses for this movie and I distinctly remember owning all four — and somehow two (Happiness Hotel and Miss Piggy) currently reside above the sink in my Manhattan apartment. (I assume the other two are shattered into pieces, buried somewhere in a Missouri landfill.) I mention this for two reasons: First, fast food restaurant chain commemorative glasses used to be really nice. If Taco Bell, or whatever, issued a set of these for The Force Awakens, I would be at Taco Bell once a week buying pasty bean burritos that make my stomach upset just to get one of these. I remember when The Phantom Menace came out, Taco Bell did have a commemorative set, but it was this clown car-looking, big rubber head on a plastic cup-type deal. What happened? Did glass get too expensive? (Admittedly, I had all of the Taco Bell The Phantom Menace collector cups, because of course I did. The difference is I can guarantee to you that they all now reside somewhere in a Missouri landfill.)
Second, I think I hung on to these because I always knew there was something special about The Great Muppet Caper: It didn’t pander, it’s has a snappy story and great cameos (I didn’t even mention John Cleese), and somehow made a true “kids movie” into something that felt adult.
During a scene set at a London park, Statler and Waldorf show up to make fun of Kermit and Miss Piggy who are riding bikes. As Kermit does a trick on his bike without using his hands, Waldorf yells out, “Look, Ma, no brains.” Which is fitting, because The Great Muppet Caper is the Muppet movie with all the brains.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.